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What Happens When Women Lead? 3 Key Lessons from Powerhouse CEOs that All of Us Can Apply to Our Own Lives

What Happens When Women Lead? 3 Key Lessons from Powerhouse CEOs that All of Us Can Apply to Our Own Lives

By Julia Boorstin
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“When you grow up, everything will be different.”

I still remember my mother saying that when I was 13 years old, squeezed between friends in the back seat of afternoon carpool. We had just heard Gloria Steinem speak at our school’s annual women’s history speaker series.

It was an experience my mother saw as a rite of passage for me. She had marched against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. Proof of it sat on her desk: a photo of her younger self in a flower print minidress, flanked by her best friends holding picket signs. Drawn to the energy and potential in the women’s rights movement, she had heard Steinem speak in the 1970s.

“We marched so you wouldn’t have to,” she said.

When it comes to gender equity, conditions have not changed as much as my mom had hoped. The world right now looks nothing like what she expected. But maybe what she meant was that women of my generation would find new ways to do new things.

From what I’ve learned over my past twenty odd years of business reporting is how women have had to be far more scrappy, flexible, thick skinned, and innovative—and how the companies they have built have also taken on those characteristics. I’ve found that women’s strengths have often been overlooked or simply not associated with great leadership.

The more women’s leadership models—communal, empathetic, vulnerable, and purpose driven—become part of the established canon, the more all companies will gain. The sooner we recognize how characteristics that have nothing to do with “power” can be effective tools, the more businesses will profit from different perspectives and approaches.

Here’s what I’ve learned about what happens when women lead—and how all of us can take these lessons and apply them to our own lives.

1. Superpowers don’t always look like powers.

In reporting my new book, it became clear to me that there is no one type of leadership that always works, nor is there a singular trick to navigating challenges. What’s been most striking to me is that there is a vast gulf between the traditional idea of good leadership and the traits that actually contribute to good leadership.

For two years I spent my nights and weekends chronicling the stories of women who were often wildly different from one another, whose successes were due to their complex and nuanced approaches to leadership. Their varied approaches looked nothing like those of the strident founder-visionary, a mono-myth that reigned in the business world where I spent my days reporting. (Indeed, those who had tried to mimic stereotypical male leadership styles often foundered: Elizabeth Holmes cast herself in Steve Jobs’s image—an aspiring Supergirl copying Superman.)

The images put forth by CEOs and their marketing machines create a dangerously narrow image of powerful leadership. In fact, research shows that there is a more varied and counterintuitive set of leadership qualities that yield better results—for both women and men. Superpowers may be hard to identify when they don’t fit the commonly held leadership rubric.

2. We all get scared, and that’s actually a good thing.

When I was a young reporter at Fortune magazine interviewing much older men, I was often struck by their apparently unwavering confidence. But the more people I interview, the more I realize that no one is ever entirely sure of him- or herself. They’re all just making the best decisions they can with all the data they have in a particular moment.

What’s just as important as having self-confidence is knowing when to dial it down to absorb information and consider a range of opinions. Being honest about your lack of certainty—signaling vulnerability—can invite trust and encourage people to share honest feedback. Then what’s important is finding the right moment to dial self-confidence back up again, to execute. It’s actually the balance of self-confidence and humility that enables a growth mindset, which seems valuable for anyone. The idea that self-confidence not only can be on a dial, but that it should be, is reassuring. It means that when I feel intimidated or anxious, it’s not a permanent state, and I have the power to adjust it.

3. Nothing is more powerful than women helping one another.

When I feel most overwhelmed with life and work, I think about the data that explain the power of female-dominated micro-environments, and I make a point to organize dinner with a group of friends. I may feel as though I don’t have time, but being with a group of women who aren’t necessarily in one’s industry yields real, measurable value in helping navigate challenges.

I still get chills when I remember the study that found that small groups of women could eliminate the feeling of discouragement they had gotten from learning about the stereotype that engineering is a masculine field and the other experiment that found the strongest negotiators are women who are negotiating on behalf of someone else. That fierceness can be unleashed and adapted so women can apply it on their own behalf. I’m hopeful that women will begin to feel liberated from the socially imposed discomfort about asking other women for professional help.

I wish I had space to write about all the ways I’ve seen women come together to lift one another up. I could fill books about organizations that are not specifically designed to be about women’s empowerment but are indeed doing just that. The US women’s soccer team started a conversation about equal pay and has created a new generation of strong athlete role models for girls and boys. Now the expansion of the National Women’s Soccer League through new teams such as Angel City in my hometown of Los Angeles is creating high-profile images of female strength in sports and beyond. Women are using organizations such as WW to support one another and celebrate NSVs—non-scale victories—to focus on all the varied things they are proud of in their work and home lives.

Seeing these examples of varied groups supporting women in their personal and professional journeys reminds me that we can find—and offer—help everywhere.

From When Women Lead. Used with permission of the publisher, Avid Reader Press. Copyright 2022 Julia Boorstin.

Julia Boorstin is CNBC’s Senior Media & Tech Correspondent and has been an on-air reporter for the network since 2006. She also plays a central role on CNBC’s bicoastal tech-focused program “TechCheck” delivering reporting, analysis, and CEO interviews with a focus on social media and the intersection of media and technology.

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