Leading Well: What We Don’t See

What women leaders need to know about gender-based differences & nonverbal communication.

Takes initiative. Confidence. Competence. Visionary. These are all characteristics that come to mind when we think of strong leadership—particularly male leadership. Unfortunately, even today, some of those same characteristics are viewed as negative traits when applied to women. Instead of being a go-getter, thinker, strategic planner, or capable team member, she is viewed as bossy, strong-willed, or rigid.

Without a doubt women are leading in more ways than ever before. And yet from Sheryl Sandberg’s national best seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, it appears that many women are still leading blindly. Sandberg encourages more women to sit at the table, jump in, grab opportunities, and keep their hands up. After all, “it is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do.” As leaders, women must get comfortable taking the initiative.

In addition to taking the initiative, women need to become avid learners. Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s chief technology officer, reports, “The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.” For competent leaders, it is fairly easy to learn the business of our companies and organizations and our job descriptions. Women rarely fail because of what is written on paper. Women often fall behind professionally because of unmet expectations and unspoken rules and that is where many of us need more education.

A few months ago I read a book titled, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead, by Carol Kinsey Goman. While I do not agree with some of the scientific information shared in the book, I was blown away when I read the chapter, He Leads, She Leads. I would guess that most of us don’t intentionally think about our body language. When we discuss “body” in connection with “professional women,” the conversation quickly turns to determine whether or not we are dressing modestly enough for the workplace. We don’t want to show too much cleavage, we don’t want our skirts too short, or our pants too tight. We don’t want our colors to be too flashy (after all, we do want to be taken seriously and not to look like a party girl). Never be too sexual or suggestive (that’s not the way that a competent leader wants to climb the ladder). We don’t want to dress too old, but want to appear young (but not too young) and fresh. We don’t want to look out of shape or lazy because we want others to know that we can get the job done. But as women leaders, do we really think about our body language?

We need to learn our own body language, its signals, and discern the body language of others if we want to lead effectively. Goman shares that research “offers insight into why corporations have relatively few females in senior leadership positions. It has everything to do with body language—but not in the way you might anticipate.” Goman shares thirteen gender-based differences in nonverbal communication. Perhaps the most important difference is that women are better at reading body language and should therefore use this skill to our advantage. Be attentive to the nonverbal messages in the room.

Both men and women also have strengths and weakness concerning their methods of communication. In addition to reading body language, women are generally better listeners and are more compassionate towards others. Since men are generally “overly blunt and direct, insensitive to emotional reactions, and too confident in [their] own opinions,” women who understand their communication strengths actually have the power to shape conversations.

Be careful because, “communication strengths turn into weaknesses when overdone.” Women leaders do not want to become “overly emotional, indecisive, or lacking in authoritative body language signals.” However, they should be mindful that followers are looking for warmth and authority in their leaders. If you are a woman who is educated, professional, have a title, or work experience, you already have authority. Own it! At the same time, be you. People want leaders who have personalities. When people are drawn by your presence and your professionalism, you win as a leader.

Here is Goman’s advice to women seeking leadership credibility. Lean In by:

Keeping your voice down.
Claiming your space. (Compensate for men’s larger and taller statue by standing straight, broadening, [your] stance, etc. [The goal is to] take up more physical space.)
Smiling selectively.
Watching your hands. (As a woman particularly, you will be viewed as much less powerful if you self-pacify with girlish behaviors)
Curbing your enthusiasm.
Speaking Up.
Straightening your head. ([Literally.] Head tilting is also a universal sign of acquiescence and submission. When you want to project authority and confidence, you should hold your head in an erect, more neutral position.)
Employing a firm handshake.
Keeping your eyes in the business zone. [Focus on the other person’s eyes.]

Dressing like a leader.Trying a little tenderness. (Showing emotion is not only a good thing: it is a powerful leadership strategy.)Looking at people when they speak.Stop solving problems. (Try being a sounding board rather than a problem solver.)Lightening up. [Don’t take yourself too seriously.] 

Women and men need each other, even in professional working relationships. Women can become more effective leaders by understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and paying attention to those of their male counterparts. Presentation is critical when considering expectations and unspoken rules. Women need to learn the power of their nonverbal communication, while understanding that both professionalism and personality are important for leadership growth, development, and advancement.

About the author, Natasha S. Robinson

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is a writer, speaker, advocate, Women's Mentoring Ministry Leader, and recent graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary having earned a M.A. in Christian Leadership. Connect with Natasha through her website, www.natashasrobinson.com; blog, A Sista's Journey, Twitter @asistasjourney, and Facebook at NatashaSistrunkRobinson.