An optimum environment for developing leadership capability of female managers and entrepreneurs is the third sector. This may be due to the more values-based work culture that characterises the sector and its prevalent leadership styles.
The ‘third sector’ is a broad term under which organisations and groups that are not private companies nor public agencies are listed. This includes charities, social enterprises (SEOs), community interest companies (CICs) and groups, not-for-profit (NFP) organisations and voluntary agencies.
Of course, anyone developing leadership in the third sector needs to take into account both the complexity and diversity existing within the sector. Leadership in the third sector might be best understood as an emergent values-in-action model or values-based leadership.
Understanding both personal and organisational values is a powerful route to effective leadership development. So what leadership values characterise professional and business work-cultures, and do these resonate with aspiring female leaders?
Female leaders socialised out
A recent presentation by the author, Lisa Rossetti, to Chester’s PROWL (Professional Women at Lunch) network - entitled: “Why women are ditching the hero” – challenged the prevailing hero leadership style, and uncovered leadership development issues which women in traditional male work cultures typically face. The audience comprised 25 professional women, mostly from traditional male work domains – banking, legal, and finance.
The presentation addressed the language of business, embedded values and leadership styles that may not resonate with women. Women are often socialised out of calling themselves leaders and thus hold back from recognising their authentic and innate qualities and strengths as women leaders.
The hero leader
In the 1970s the female workforce encountered a work environment characterised by authoritative leadership structures and tight control. To succeed, women needed to adopt a simple strategy – to imitate the values and characteristics of their male colleagues. Even today, in professional arenas where traditional roots still hold firm, these cultures are typically characterised by command-and-control leadership – the hero leader; top-down decision making; one-way performance measurement; top-down appraisals; standardized codes of dress; and language which abounds with militaristic metaphors.
Coaches will have their antennae trained to pick up clues in the coachee’s language and use of metaphors which express values; and be familiar with how empowerment is linked to the expression of personal values.
Language of leadership
The prevailing language of business and leadership which defines success is indeed a barrier for many aspiring women. Using a storytelling method to present two very contrasting leadership tales, the military language of the hero leader’s style was revealed. One participant said: “I never realised how “male” everyday business language really is.” Could women be literally and subtly talking themselves out of being leaders? A useful coaching intervention is to work with female clients to develop their own story of leadership based on values and language that resonate with them more authentically.
The second story - of a 60-year old Comfort Kumeah, a Ghanaian woman who now leads a co-operative of cocoa farmers as the national executive of Kuapa Kokoo, a FairTrade organisation trading with the Divine Chocolate company.
By contrast, Comfort’s leadership story expressed values like gratitude, justice, beauty, empowerment, legacy and faith. For her, success meant ensuring her children’s education, being a role model for young women and having the voice of her working community be finally heard. Her leadership style was engaging, collaborative, visionary and mentoring and very resilient.
Participants benefitted from considering the cross-cultural leadership values, and contrasting these to their own development needs. One delegate said: “I have never thought before of the challenges other women face.”
There is evidence from the third sector that female leaders are adept at initiating and leading change at community or grassroots level. The impact of their work is often more impactful and far reaching than the level at which it is achieved through widening and connecting networks and by becoming thought-leaders for change. Women are great networkers and often influence through these networks, rather than through chains of command. They excel at collaborative approaches to task management and teamwork.
Typically, they demonstrate and express values around nurturing, protecting and enriching others. An emergent principle is that “Leadership is about being successful ourselves, and helping others do the same”.
However, it would be unwise to over-generalise from these principles and corral female leaders into one style or one sector. Coaches and mentors would do well to remember that female leaders do have bold vision, they can also be resilient and strong; and they can and do take risks.
A new way of doing business
In contrast to the hero leader, women may well be skilled early adoptors of a new way of doing business, consensual, collaborative - often “leading from behind”.
Is this a softly softly and ineffectual approach with no place in the modern world? Not so, says Ngozi Okonjo-Iwealam, managing director of the World Bank, who recently espoused collaborative leadership and partnership working with governments world-wide as the most effective way to address enormous global environmental issues like drought and famine.
Clearly, we need to understand much more about the development of female leadership in the 21st century across sectors and across cultures, if we are to release their potential as thought-leaders and change-makers. There are potentially enormous social and economic benefits to be gained when women are encouraged and coached to develop bold visions that resonate with their values, and to lead authentically.