How a Woman Leads

By Janet Woodka

Two chefs, each with the same training, ingredients, and kitchen, can create very different recipes. Both good. But very different.

It is much the same with men and women leaders. Women lead differently than men. It shouldn’t be a surprise. We’ve been talking about how men and women interact differently on a personal level for decades. It has even been said that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” to explain how expectations and even language and perception differ between the sexes.

Women should celebrate their unique strengths, not emulate men, or, for that matter, be exactly
like the women who came before them. We are all unique individuals. Women have skills and abilities that they bring to problem solving, whether in the public sector or the private sector, generally including the ability to multi-task and hold onto disparate ideas, a lack of ego, an ability to reach consensus, and a desire to please. There may be some truth to the conventional wisdom that women do try to make people happy. And making people happy leads to good public policy - and good products.

More and more, women are embracing what makes them uniquely skilled leaders. While inequalities still exist - in compensation, in the number of women in pinnacle positions, and in perceptions - there has been a shift. I have been lucky to work for, learn from, and be mentored by fantastic women who knew that they were unique and different from men and who used those differences to succeed. And I learned a few lessons along the way.


The corpus callosum is a link - a highway of sorts - between the left and right brain. In women, it is thicker and the connections are more varied. That may be why I can plan a trip, schedule the plumber, write an article, mentor someone, and get my hair cut all at once. Recent management studies bear this out, noting that women are almost twice as efficient as men when given five or more tasks. A man’s strength generally lies in focusing on a single task. While allowing women to be conversant on many issues at the same time, this ability to multi-task also enables women to see the big picture as well as the intersections between issues.


Women will often check their egos at the door, especially if it is for the good of the whole. Women leaders want respect and aren’t as reliant on recognition. For them, there is satisfaction in creating a great show, not being the star of it. Women are more inclusive and listen to differing viewpoints, sometimes altering their own viewpoint as a result. If a man runs a meeting, he will often put his ideas forward at the beginning. A woman, however, will solicit the viewpoints of others and synthesize them into a coherent theme as the meeting progresses. There is a nurturing aspect to the way women manage discussions and create consensus.


Recent studies have found that women are more willing to ignore rules and take risks. Women leaders will gather information but, if there are unknowns, they will go with their gut and trust their instincts. This is invaluable in public policy decision-making, when information can be scarce or contradictory. During BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson relied upon her instincts when deciding to use chemicals to disperse the oil. The incoming information was not perfect, but further delay would have caused more irreparable harm.


For many years, women have had to be better than men in order to be on equal footing. The oft-heard comment, “I need to perform twice as well to be thought of as half as good,” has been a hallmark, especially for women early in their careers. However, hard work pays off for women, and they know it. Hillary Clinton put her head down and became, while she served in the Senate and as Secretary of State, “a work horse, not a show horse” and earned the respect of those who served with her.


Women leaders have stellar interpersonal skills. Perhaps from navigating family dynamics or just all
of that “girl time,” from a young age, women use language that is less combative, more conciliatory, and less driven by ego. Studies have shown that women are more adept and faster at intuiting facial and vocal changes. This allows women leaders to better and more quickly read situations and people, weighing concerns or obstructions and dealing with them in a way that makes participants feel included. And women listen. Women will explore another person’s point of view and ensure that it is fully a part of the discussion. As a result, people feel more heard and understood, leading to the gold star in leadership circles and to people feeling valued.


Women leaders excel at social networking. Women share stories and experiences, and that is definitely true in the workplace and in the development of public policy. When I was in government, the women would often call each other offline to chat or take a temperature - to see who or what is really driving the train, so to speak. Oftentimes, these informal conversations led to insights that would lead to consensus or a new path. We could do it because we had built personal relationships, meeting for drinks, coffee, or dinner. We knew the names of children and about the mother who was ill. At the EPA, we even called the network the “SHE-P-A.” We supported each other, encouraged each other, and listened to each other.

Like food, leadership has many flavors. The flavors that women leaders bring to the table are interesting, unique, and very much a part of the essential table. Let’s celebrate the differences and indulge in them.

Having worked for over two decades on complex social policy issues at the highest levels of government, Janet Woodka is using her experience and network to give back to others. Founder of Laignappe, LLC, which provides mentoring and strategic counseling while funneling profits back to startups and nonprofits trying to make a difference in the world, Janet also focuses on amplifying inspirational success stories through various media channels.

This article appeared in Issue 3 | Summer 2015

To read more inspiring articles from Issue 3, including our cover story featuring Eileen Fisher, as well as inspiring stories featuring John Replogle of Seventh Generation, Pantheon Enterprises, Transatomic Power, gDiapers, and more - purchase a copy of Issue 3 online!

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