Most women leaders rise to the top because they’re superior in their field.
The most successful women leaders stay at the top – and set the bar for all leaders – because they excel in several critical leadership behaviors. They master certain roles that others struggle to balance.
“Great leadership is dynamic,” says Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0. “It melds a variety of unique skills into an integrated whole.”
Here’s what makes the most successful women stand above the rest and ways you can adopt top leaders’ techniques:
Kindness without weakness
For women, kindness can be perceived as weakness. The best leaders prove that the two qualities are not synonymous.
Top women leaders share credit and offer praise for others’ work – and give tough criticism when warranted. They’re direct without being offensive, and don’t avoid difficult conversations (which is weak). They expect great things, and reward it with great kindness.
For example, Margaret Thatcher, “The Iron Lady,” demanded high standards for everything from grammar to financial analysis. She checked her civil servants’ work carefully and expected near perfection. She also listened closely and respected their opinions – and was famous for cooking homemade shepherd’s pie for them when they worked late.
For you: Take the Thatcher approach – maintain high expectations and reward success with great kindness.
Confidence without arrogance
People naturally gravitate to confident leaders because their positive attitude is contagious. But that confidence can be a double-edged sword. When confident people continue to achieve, they sometimes become arrogant, thinking they can do anything, bar nothing or no one.
The best women leaders let confidence fuel their passion to make things happen while keeping the best interest of their people and organization in mind. They stay humble, remembering that they aren’t above mistakes and learning from them.
For example, Rachel Sklar, Founder of Change the Ratio, pays close attention to the things she’s doing wrong so she can evolve and learn. “Leadership is something you’re always honing and learning and reflecting to see ways you could have done better,” she says in Fast Company.
For you: Remain confident, and always look for something to learn in each new situation you face. Keep a journal of those lessons to deepen the impact.
Strength without harshness
Many people hold off support and confidence in their leaders until they see signs of inner strength. The best women leaders show their strength by making difficult decisions, taking action when others might hesitate, owning up to mistakes and taking responsibility for both good and bad outcomes.
Those are the difficult parts of leadership and they can be harsh realities. The best women leaders respond to adversity with compassion and don’t simply make demands or dictate.
For instance, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, had to admit fault for malfunctions that caused injuries and deaths, plus the cover-up that followed. That all happened before she wasn’t even in charge. But the new CEO Barra took responsibility for the resolution, without blaming others or diminishing the severity of what had happened.
For you: Criticize and share bad news personally when necessary. Then focus on what can and will be done to move forward.
Modeling without preaching
The best women leaders walk the talk. They gain trust and admiration through actions, not just words. They let people know what they value by consistently relying on their values to make decisions and act.
They don’t harp on what others “should” do. They focus on doing what’s right and expect others to do the same.
For example, Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture, wanted to build a more authentic atmosphere where leaders and employees felt they could be honest and exchange more information. She started with herself by killing the corporate memo. If she wanted to relay information – good and bad — across the company, she’d tell people herself via live-streamed conversations where she took questions or via pre-taped video messages.
For you: Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves. Working side-by-side with employees helps you gain their trust, give a front-line perspective and share your values.
Sacrifice without martyrdom
The most successful leaders are selfless. They’ll do anything for their teams or company, and wouldn’t ask employees to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves.
They lift up their employees and welcome challenges, criticism and viewpoints other than their own. And then they truly consider those insights.
As an example of lifting up employees, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, regularly writes thank you notes to employees’ parents. Yes, parents. She wants them to continue to experience pride in their children – the same kind they likely had when the children excelled in school. That makes employees feel great, too.
For you: Like Nooyi, look for ways to congratulate employees and thank their families – and schedule time to make it a reality every week.
Positive without being unrealistic
Positive leaders pull people with them. Negative leaders simply turn people off.
The best women leaders remain positive but keep it tempered with a dose of reality. They recognize what’s right and wrong, leaning toward the upside. Then they set a plan based on the reality of both.
For example, when Ellen Kullman became CEO of DuPont, the company was losing ground in its industry. She was sure the company could change, but it would have to be done quickly. So she made big adjustments, shifting the core business focus to higher tech areas. After the changes, DuPont’s profits went up and the company continues to grow.
For you: Remain positive, but don’t let rose-colored glasses blind you. Talk to your biggest challengers and invite them to poke holes in your theories and projections.
The best women in leadership often have to walk a fine line, using sense and sensibility to lead people and processes. While every decision and action isn’t cut and dried, staying focused on these behaviors makes them all more manageable.