What do the following have in common? General Motors, Biocon, New Zealand, Germany and YouTube.

They all are headed by women.

Surprised, right? Even though women still find it tougher to make it to the top in business, we forget that countless women across the world have shattered many glass ceilings and are leading organizations and countries in larger numbers than ever before. Accounting network Grant Thornton’s 2020 report said the proportion of women in senior management has increased from 20% to nearly 30% over the last 15 years. 

Do successful women leaders follow the same script as their male counterparts? Or is there something that women leaders do differently that helps them succeed? 

Experts say women executives exhibit certain traits that help them lead effectively. These are traditionally regarded as “feminine” qualities, although both men and women can use them to improve their leadership. Let’s look at the five top leadership traits of women:

1. Empathy

Empathy has often been considered a gendered trait–something women are naturally better at. In fact, many go as far as to say empathy is the greatest superpower of women. A 2009 study of adolescents led by María Vicenta Mestre, a psychologist at the University of Valencia, found a greater empathic response in young women than in men of the same age. 

However, empathy is not innate. It can be learned and practiced through coaching, training and developmental initiatives. And the benefits of empathetic leadership go beyond managers and their immediate subordinates–it also helps create a climate of support and protection that enhances performance across organizations. The Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of executive education, surveyed 6,731 managers from 38 countries and found that empathy is positively related to job performance. 

2. Appreciativeness

Research shows that women managers are more appreciative of their employees. A 2015 Gallup survey of American managers found that female managers are more inclined to give their employees regular feedback to help them achieve their goals. In fact, female managers are 1.17 times more likely to praise their employees at least once every week.

This has a trickle-down effect on women employees in particular, boosting their self-confidence and motivating them. KPMG’s Women’s Leadership Survey in 2015 found that for more than half of working women, receiving praise from colleagues, leaders and mentors influences their perception of themselves in the workplace more than the traditional rewards of raises and promotions. 

The lesson? Don’t leave praise for the year-end appraisal. Make it a habit. 

3. Entrepreneurial spirit

A key trait of women leaders is their entrepreneurial spirit and ability to spot an opportunity that others miss–and go all in. A great example is Bumble founder Wolfe Herd, who became one of the youngest billionaires at 31 after the dating app operator raised $2.2 billion from its IPO last month. 

So what sets Bumble apart from other dating apps? Herd’s experience as vice-president of marketing at rival Tinder helped her realize that women want more autonomy in online dating. She defied dating norms by creating an app that lets women initiate introductions, and the rest is history.

4. Resilience

Resilience is the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. In the male-dominated world of business, it takes a lot of resilience for women to make it to the top of their fields. And research says women have the ability to bounce back after a crisis. Andy Scharlach, a professor of aging at UC Berkeley and director of its Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services, found that women tend to be more resilient than men. 

Take Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director of Biocon, who wasn’t deterred when companies refused to hire her as a brewmaster even though she was trained for the job. She turned the adversity into an opportunity and started Biocon from her garage. “It was the failure to get a job as a brewmaster that saw me start a biotech company,” she once said in an interview with Outlook Business. 

5. Persuasiveness

One of the critical skills for leadership is persuasion. Persuasive leaders are not only better at communicating their vision to their employees, but they also convince their teams to get on board with their plans more easily. Research shows that women leaders have strong people skills that enable them to read situations accurately and persuade others.

A 2014 study of 85 women in senior leadership positions by New Jersey-based management consulting firm Caliper found that women scored highest on traits such as assertiveness, empathy, flexibility, sociability and ego-drive (the degree of satisfaction gained from persuading others). Caliper’s study concluded that these traits align with a straightforward and persuasive communication style. 

Conclusion

A few decades ago, the words “leader”, “CEO” and “boss” were associated only with men. Not anymore. As women continue to climb the rungs of the corporate ladder, they have proved that they can be successful managers and visionary leaders. 

While research shows that women leaders can be just as, if not more effective than men, stereotypes portraying women as less capable leaders than men persist. 

Instead of questioning whether women can lead, it’s time to ask ourselves: which traits can we learn from them to become better leaders?

Tanvi Khemani is Manager, Curriculum, at Harappa Education. She is a postgraduate in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences and enjoys eating street-side chaat and writing fiction.

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