10/12/2011 05:47 pm ET | Updated Dec 12, 2011

Why Women Leaders Must Be Authentic and Fearless

It is timely that this week's Diversity Women's Business Leadership Conference followed the announcement of three women from West Africa and the Middle East being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Both events are reminders that women in positions of leadership are making a difference.

The events also remind us that it matters that women of all races, cultures, and backgrounds are in positions of leadership. Throughout the world, including in the U.S., we find laws and cultural practices that prevent women from reaching their full potential and equal place in society. Yet, we also see women step up and out of their cultural constraints and into leadership roles, engaging in courageous acts of social change.

Women take different paths to leadership. For some it is through hard work or academic excellence, for others it is through mentorship programs and for others the lesson of perseverance from a mother opens the pathway to lead. While we celebrate the female leaders of today, we know that there are still too few women leaders at the highest levels of governments, corporations and nonprofits. There is an urgent need to fill this leadership gap to ensure women are included in the decision-making that shapes societies and impacts our lives. Women must be in leadership roles not just because women are good decision makers, but because society benefits when diverse perspectives and expertise of women are included in the decision-making process.

I had the honor of chairing the opening panel at the Diversity Women's Business Leadership Conference that took on the challenge of defining models of leadership that can create pathways for women to lead. The panelists -- women leaders from diverse backgrounds and professional fields -- explored issues of authenticity, culture, mentorship and fearlessness.

On the matter of culture and women's leadership, Miriam Yeung of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum described cultural constraints that many Asian and Pacific Islander women face that conflict with what society expects from leaders. For many women, she noted, to be a leader of today and tomorrow requires breaking rules and breaking down barriers within one's own culture in addition to the dominant work place culture.

When it comes to creating an office culture that promotes a diversified workplace, Kierra Johnson of ChoiceUSA stated it well. Even with policies and structures in place to increase diversity and women's leadership, organizations and companies must define the value of diversity for the organization and its work. This takes authentic engagement in conversations about culture, leadership and the business implications of diversity.

Taking on the challenge of creating opportunities for other women to lead, Maria Tildon, a senior vice president at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, shared her observation that the best, most effective leaders are authentic and true to who they are, and that as leaders, we can and should reach out to other women to help lift others into leadership roles. Mentorship, an important tool to reach out to girls and women of color, is critical, said panelist Dr. Shireen Lewis, executive director of SisterMentors. Dr. Lewis pointed out essential leadership skills that are missing from current leadership models--social skills, emotional intelligence, and self-care. And we as leaders must model self development for others.

To break barriers and to step up as leaders, women must be fearless, stated Sara Manzano-Diaz, director of the women's bureau at the Department of Labor. Manzano-Diaz explained that to develop future women leaders we must teach girls to be fearless and the best way to do that is for those of us in leadership positions to also be fearless, to challenge the methods of recruiting diverse workplaces, and to be ourselves even when questioning the status quo. We must not be afraid to reach out and lift others up for fear of competition or scrutiny of "playing favorites."

One of our roles as women in the workplace is to redefine leadership by virtue of our roles. We have both the luxury and the obligation to begin redefining leadership according to terms that enhance our work, our workplaces and our personal lives. It is through the increased representation of women from all races, cultures and backgrounds in positions of leadership that we are poised to make the biggest impact in defining leadership with new terms that reflect our values and that will make our society and communities better.

As long as being a woman in a position of leadership is the exception and not the rule, women leaders have an obligation to mentor and create new leadership models. We must lead with compassion and generosity, be fearless, and, most crucially, be authentic. While we are not inherently better-suited to be leaders than our male counterparts, we do have a distinct responsibility.