THE BLOG
04/29/2014 04:11 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2014

Women at Work: Leadership -- Style or Stereotypes?

Here's a quick quiz for you called, "guess the gender." An executive I coach is a warm, family-oriented person, highly sensitive to the opinions of others, somewhat indecisive yet very supportive. What's their gender?

If you automatically chose "woman" you are not only wrong -- my client is a male senior VP at a leading IT company -- but you are also indulging in a lazy yet harmful stereotype of what many commonly assume typifies "male" or "female" leadership styles.

As we approach this issue, we should keep in mind the attributes of all good leaders: they support and promote their people, possess pro-active listening skills, can build and motivate teams, are creative, make wise decisions based on facts, know-how and experience, have strong persuasive skills, take bold yet calculated risks to seize opportunities, fight necessary political battles while maintaining their networks, and shirk neither decision-making or responsibility.

When we look at great leaders such as Celtic warrior-Queen Boudicca or Lakota Chief Red Cloud, Eleanor Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln, for instance, it is clear that both genders share the qualities of effective and inspirational leadership listed above. Moreover, in our own private and professional lives, we all know those who don't fit the stereotypes: weak men and callous women, gossipy males and non-communicative females, timid male bosses and fiery female ones.

And yet broad stereotypes of which gender is better suited for which job endure. They lie imbedded in our societies as well as in our subconscious. In the business world, women are commonly thought to be better listeners, more communicative and capable of showing greater empathy. Men, on the other hand, are seen as straight-talking, aggressive and decisive deal-makers. The result is that many women are regulated to dead-end jobs in HR departments where they can best "take care" of employees, while being subtly discouraged to apply for, say, the tough "male" job of COO, where her assumed natural soft skills -- regardless of whether she has them or not -- would be considered a disadvantage.

But while recent neurological research by scientists like Dr. Ragini Verma at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, shows how uniquely wired male and female brains are -- (news flash! men and women are different!) -- hard data on which of the sexes make the most effective leaders is lacking. Additionally, sociological tests of gender leadership styles are often flawed because of the predominance of men in management positions -- they are the ones filling out the surveys. Moreover, testing across positions and sectors can skew findings due to gender job clusters -- mechanical engineering for men, say, or nursing for women -- making it difficult extrapolate for society as a whole. Throw into the mix global cultures, norms and traditions and it becomes impossible to draw any definite conclusions at all.

In this situation, the easiest thing to do is to rely upon our age-old stereotypes of how we expect male and female leaders to act and behave. The end result is to make things more challenging and difficult for businesswomen than for their male counterparts. It is hard enough for any organization to find, develop and promote good leaders. Thinning this thin pool even more by allowing gender stereotypes to affect our decisions about whom to promote, ensure that many more weak or unqualified candidates will rise to the top while the ideal candidates -- among them many experienced, driven and qualified women -- will be relegated to the outer rings of power, there to linger without being permitted to display their true leadership qualities. The result is lose-lose, both for the female employee and the company as a whole.

When choosing the best leaders, it is far more constructive to focus on leadership styles and talents -- which vary from individual to individual, according to their experience, personality, skill-set and qualifications -- than on preconceived notions of how a male or female boss should behave.

Like Boudicca, a businesswoman has to focus on getting results; her deeds will dash down the stereotypes -- but only if she proudly and energetically promotes them and demands what is rightfully hers. Enlightened men will welcome and support this. But it is up to females to drive the spear of reality through the heart of the old clichés which are holding them back from attaining their true potential. Only then, like their bronze-tipped spears, will they truly shine.