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Women Shaped My Leadership Evolution

For much of my early life, my concept of a leader was distinctly masculine. The presidents, warriors, athletes, and businessmen society celebrated as leadership icons were almost exclusively men. The narrators of leadership defined it through their male lens - decisive, commanding, and driven to achieve goals through a hierarchical chain of command. It's all they knew, so it's what they kept reinforcing.

Given this, it's no wonder women hold 29% of senior leadership positions in the U.S. (Women of Color hold approximately 4%) and globally, even though they make up approximately 47% of the labor force. That's a significant leadership gap that leads to gaps in pay, career advancement opportunities, and decision-making processes.

"Leaders come in many forms and from many backgrounds. Part of being a great leader is knowing how to leverage a diversity of talent and create an inclusive environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute." - Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance.

It wasn't until later, as I began my professional journey, that I encountered a transformative shift in my understanding of leadership. This new paradigm, one that was more balanced, inclusive, and nurturing, was shaped by the profound influence of the many exceptional women leaders I had the privilege to work with and learn from across various roles, companies, and industries.

My development and evolution as a leader started in the later years of college when I had the most direct engagement with women leaders. My first professional job after graduation was working for a powerful Black woman. Throughout my career, I mostly reported to white women and women of color in leadership roles. Because I got to experience their guidance and mentorship firsthand, they helped reshape my paradigm and approach to leadership in unforgettable ways.

Recently, I was fortunate to co-facilitate a change management session with a room full of passionate women from diverse backgrounds - all united and leading the charge to make our world more equitable and just for everyone. Reflecting on that moment, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for how so many trailblazing women not only influenced, but shaped my leadership philosophy over the past 35 years. A sincere thank you!

I'm well aware that outdated stereotypes about women in leadership still persist in too many circles (board rooms, executive leadership teams, etc.). Comments dismissing them as 'too caring,' 'too emotional,' or assumptions that they only advance due to gender continue to perpetuate the falsehood that 'leader' must be defined as 'man.' As a man, I've heard these comments from other men. I understand that some men (and women) might have reservations about the need for a more inclusive and balanced approach to leadership. However, I believe that exploring our unconscious biases about the stereotypical traits associated with leaders is essential for our personal and professional growth.

I've learned that truly effective leadership requires integrating the complementary strengths of traditional 'masculine' and 'feminine' approaches. By 'balanced leadership approach,' I mean a leadership style that combines the naturally decisive, confident, and vision-setting qualities we typically associate with male leaders with the empathy, compassion, talent cultivation, and ethical grounding exemplified by the women who led me. This approach not only fosters a more inclusive and diverse work environment but also enhances the overall performance and success of the team.

The women leaders I had the honor of working with and learning from brought a rich perspective beyond gender. Their innate strengths as motivators, bridge-builders, champions of diversity, and nurturers of collaborative environments unlocked innovative ideas and solutions our teams may have missed under one-dimensional leadership. They exemplified the power of integrating conventional masculine drivers like ambition and strategy with nurturing guidance, empowering others, and prioritizing collaboration over a rigid hierarchy.

"Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you." Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the second woman - and first Jewish woman - to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In our modern workplaces, characterized by diverse, talented, and dynamic teams, a balanced leadership approach is not just a suggestion; it's necessary for any organization hoping to gain and keep a competitive advantage. The most successful leaders of the future must proactively incorporate a range of complementary leadership traits across the gender spectrum. This approach and style are not a "nice to have" but a strategic imperative for organizational success.

I am who I am as a leader because of the powerful women who invested in me, counseled me, and modeled what effective, inclusive, and principles-centered leadership looked like through our partnerships. Their influence has been transformative, shaping me into a more balanced, empathetic, and impactful leader and human being. As more men can be open to learning these invaluable lessons from the rising women leaders around them, our teams, organizations, and communities would be vastly better for it.

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