What struck journalist Julia Boorstin as interesting when researching her book, When Women Lead, was not how underrepresented women were but rather how successful they were when given the opportunity. “When women have defied the odds, their leadership skills and strategies have made them exceptional and offer a lot for everyone to learn from. I think that we should have more women in leadership positions because all the data indicates they do better.”
Boorstin, who has reported for CNBC since 2006 and before that for Fortune magazine, interviewed over 120 women for When Women Lead: What They Can Achieve, Why They Succeed, and How We Can Learn from Them. “What I saw is that every woman I had I interviewed had a growth mindset. These women had the balance of humility and confidence, humility to understand that they didn’t know everything they could keep on getting better.”
“Empathy is essential to understand how to lead people. You need to understand where they’re coming from,” Boorstin told me in a recent interview. And such an understanding opens the door to dealing not only with employees but also with key stakeholders like customers and investors. Empathy can lead to vulnerability, which Boorstin defines as “admitting what you don’t know, and that invites collaboration, and vulnerability is essential to elevate the potential of the people you’re working with.”
Contrary to some perceptions, says Boorstin, “women actually feel more comfortable demonstrating vulnerability.” While some may fear showing weakness, vulnerability can be liberating. Moreover, it enables women leaders to seek help from outside sources. For example, according to Boorstin, the global pandemic was the great interrupter for which no one had the answers. In that instance, the ability of women leaders to incorporate outside perspectives enabled them to help their organizations deal effectively with the crisis the pandemic provoked.
Boorstin noted that women leaders who had competed in athletics in high school or college used that experience to their advantage. “Athletes have a couple of advantages. First, they fail frequently. If you’re competing as an athlete, you’re getting out onto the field, and you’ll lose half the games on average unless you’re very, very on a very good team. But you get used to frequent failure.”
Furthermore, says Boorstin, “women lead athletes are trained in self-competition. It’s not just about competing against another team. It’s not just about working at a team as a team. It’s about pushing yourself to compete on your own track. [And] understanding here’s how I did in this game, here’s how I failed, here’s what I need to work on to improve.”
This kind of self-awareness can lead to leadership awareness and the willingness to do after-action reviews of team and organizational performance. Additionally, because so few women are in senior leadership positions, they are “outsiders,” even in a leadership positions. This minority status gives them a different perspective they can utilize to improve their business, that is, see it differently from insiders. And if they leave for another job, they can apply a “fresh eyes” approach. They can be disruptors of the status quo to deliver value to others, especially customers.
Her book is not just for women, says Boorstin. “The reality is I wrote When Women Lead to be inspiring to women but to be helpful for men. Men need to be liberated to lead in their own ways as well. They shouldn’t have to feel like they have to fit themselves into a box of that old [practices]. Everyone has their strengths. Those all can be turned into leadership superpowers no matter what gender you are.”