It is no surprise that “strong” is a word we use to describe women who have risen to positions of leadership. Males and females alike recognize that women in positions of power must be strong in order to survive the pressure cooker that results in only 6.4% of women in Fortune 500 CEO positions.1 A stat, by the way, which is up over 50% from 2016 and has tripled since 2008. The number of women holding these upper echelon positions of power is troubling considering that nearly 40% of MBA students are female.2 We start strong, but where do we get squeezed out?
I won’t begin to explain (or try to understand) all the reasons why the numbers thin so dramatically the closer we get to the top of these organizations. What I have noted are six characteristics that are consistently present in strong women leaders. Whether you are a Fortune 500 CEO, an executive director of a non-profit, middle management in a corporation, a small business owner, or a stay-at-home mom trying to wrangle your strong-willed toddler, these traits are essential to live and lead from a place of strength.
Strong women are self-aware. Leading ourselves well and seeking out feedback that alerts us to our blind spots and helps us identify areas of growth and development is incredibly vulnerable work. Dr. Pamela Butler, a clinical psychologist, says, “There is a person with whom you spend more time than any other, a person who has more influence over you, and more ability to interfere with or to support your growth than anyone else. This ever-present companion is your own self.”
Self-awareness is essential to lead ourselves well and to lead others effectively. In order to strongly lead, we need to be exceptionally self-aware. The challenge specifically for women is that we’re so preoccupied trying to understand what others want or expect of us that we overlook our own feelings or desires in an effort to achieve approval or success.
Strong women pay attention to what is going on within them so that they can show up authentically.
Strong women are self-assured. With greater self-awareness we can come to the leadership table more self-assured. Self-assurance is another way of saying that we are confident and centered. We are in touch with our strengths and weaknesses. We don’t feel the need to overcompensate or cover up. We’re quick to ask questions and eager to learn. We’re confident in our skills and abilities and more importantly, we’re confident that we have what it takes to figure it out. It isn’t arrogance. It’s confidence rooted in a healthy understanding of who we are and the history that has gotten us to where we are.
Strong women are connected. They value the relationships and the networks that have been a part of their story. They recognize the importance of every person who is a part of their journey so far and they intentionally invest in others and seek to learn from others. They realize that their success is not their own. They are careful not to become isolated in their desire to prove themselves. They know that obsessive pursuit of accomplishment unintentionally alienates others. This posture often works for a quick bolt up the organizational chart but it’s undergirded by insecurity and rarely leads to the strong connections that lead to long-term success.
Strong women are resilient. For many women aspiring to roles of leadership, being overlooked for a promotion or a key opportunity can be all it takes to confirm our insecurities and suspicions of our inability to succeed. Particularly if you are a female in a predominantly male environment, your ego may be so fragile that it only takes one rejection to completely reduce you to a comfortable and secure position.
But strong women demonstrate resilience in the face of discouragement or defeat. They realize that a disappointment only identifies opportunities to learn, grow, and be better prepared for the next opportunity. They have learned to appropriately disconnect their identity from their work and not give up when they face a setback.
Strong women are patient. Right or wrong, good or bad, there will be times when being a female leader carries more challenges than it ought to. You may be the first woman leading in your environment. You may be the only woman at the table. As a result, you may have to field questions or help navigate conversations that feel archaic and unnecessary. Strong women realize that these moments are helping to make the way easier for other women who will come behind them. They are patient to navigate the terrain of being the lone female at the table because they know they are making it better for other women in the future.
Strong women are committed to their goals. While the unexpected may circumvent their plans from time to time, they stay patient yet persistent in the pursuit of their dreams and goals. When circumstances like an unexpected job change for your spouse or maternity leave with your new child delay your goals for a season, you stay committed to your plan and persistently chase opportunities that help you achieve those goals. You may have to reinvent or pivot, but your persistence leads to fulfillment.
“Many women live like it’s a dress rehearsal. Ladies, the curtain is up and you’re on.” Mikki Taylor, Essence magazine
We have the opportunity to impact our world in extraordinary ways. Each one of us has a sphere of influence that we are investing in each and every day. We have the privilege to show up and lead with confidence and grace. Let’s commit to leading strong!
You’ll love Jenni’s book The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership!
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For more on being a strong female leader in the workplace, check out this podcast episode: 6 Qualities that Make a Female Strong with Leadership Expert Jenni Catron – 030!