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Articles - Women Entrepreneurs

It takes three things to be a successful business woman leader

Friday, April 07, 2000




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


What does it take for a woman to be a successful business leader in Clark County? I have been pondering that question for some time. It's not that I don't know what it takes to be a leader. It's just that the qualities of leadership are not defined by gender.

What we psychologists know about women leaders is that they don't test out any differently than men leaders on various personality characteristics. As entrepreneurs or business leaders both women and men are achievers, driven, tenacious, and independent. They are both unafraid of hard work. They strive for excellence in whatever they undertake. They can be impatient with the insecurities of others because these insecurities slow down the process. On the other hand these leaders are very good at encouraging excellence in others because they have a powerful belief in their cause. Leaders also believe in their abilities to accomplish whatever they put their minds too. This is probably the defining characteristic of leaders. Strong belief creates charisma and charisma creates followers.

So if female leadership and male leadership are not really different what does it take for a woman to be a successful business leader in Clark County? What I realized as I sifted through the characteristics of leaders is that the difference between male and female leaders may be in how those characteristics were acquired. In other words, women business leaders probably developed their leadership from quite different life experiences than their male counterparts. And these life experiences do distinguish leadership styles if not the basic leadership qualities.

Before exploring those typical female experiences that encourage leadership it is important to understand that a leader is born with something special. Just as one child seems particularly athletic and another child more musical, even as toddlers, parents are aware of leadership abilities in their child at a relatively young age. When I was six my parents attended the open house held at my school. They toured my classroom and admired the work of all of the children, but of course were particularly proud of little Kathy's accomplishments. But what impressed them most and is a family story to this day, is when the class of six-year-olds assembled ourselves into an orchestra with our rhythm instruments and performed for our parents. Little Kathy wasn't playing the maracas, or the triangle, or even the drums. No little Kathy was the conductor!

People either have leadership ability or they don't, and you can see the quality almost from birth. But that doesn't mean all people born with this quality become leaders. The quality needs to be nurtured for it to grow and flourish. Just as soccer camp and piano lessons nurture the young athlete and young musician, so must parents help their young leader find experiences to help her hone this skill. For girls and women this is not always easy since our cultural model for leadership is male.

To be female and to be a leader usually means heartache for girls before they come to accept how unusual they are and consider it an advantage. I would wager that most of the women business leaders in Clark County can relate to this. How many of you felt like an odd ball growing up? Over the years how many of you have been told you were too aggressive or unfeminine? How many of you outperformed your male colleagues only to watch the men be promoted at your expense?

I laugh now at the angry epithet thrown at me by my ex-husband shortly before our divorce. He said, "Do you know what's wrong with you? Do you really want to know what's wrong with you?"

I thought, "Well why not?" so I yelled back, "What . . . what do you think is wrong with me?"

He snarled with confidence, "What's wrong with you is that you think like a man!"

Being only 22 at the time, I didn't really understand what he meant, although I knew he didn't like me for some reason. But I was confused about what was wrong with my thinking. And I wondered if I did indeed think like a man, was that really so bad? And maybe what he meant is that I think for myself, or think I should be able to whenever I want to. Is that thinking like a man, or like an independent person?

Since then whenever I have told this story to a group I have noticed that the women leaders laugh because they have similar stories to tell. Women leaders who have overcome their fear of thinking like a man, ore behaving like a man, know they are women. Furthermore they know that each woman leader is a unique human being who brings her own particular personality to the organization she is leading. Like male leaders, female leaders are more definable by their leadership qualities than their gender.

For girls to grow up to be successful women business leaders they must conquer the fear of being unfeminine. The same qualities of leadership that are demonstrated by the boys in class are considered inappropriate for girls. So unlike boys who are leaders and encouraged to be leaders, girls who are leaders must pursue leadership by breaking the rules. If you don't like breaking the rules, you can't be a leader if you are female.

In a recent psychology study, participants were asked to describe the qualities of a male leader. They listed such qualities as strong, decisive, charismatic, aggressive, goal oriented, tall and so forth. When a separate group was shown this list of characteristics and told that this described a woman, the participants considered her unfeminine, unlikable, angry and manipulative.

I have had more than one job where I outperformed my co-workers. When I was just 19 I was a salesclerk for a department store. I worked in any department that needed an extra hand and one day they assigned me to Men's Wear. I remember having fun helping customers find just the right suit with shirt and tie to match. I had never worked in this department before so it was a challenge. By the end of the day I was surprised to learn that I had sold more merchandise than any other salesperson. Thinking that this would make the supervisor happy you can imagine my dismay when I was told that I could no longer work in that department because I was considered too pushy.

Again how many of you have similar stories to tell from childhood or youth? The problem isn't having these experiences. The problem is what to do with them. If girls are to grow into leaders and if women who are hiding their leadership abilities are to come out of the closet, then they need to be willing to rise above these negative female stereotypes. And they need to break some rules. In the case of the department store that couldn't see the advantage of my sales skills, I didn't give up. I just recognized that I was underemployed. By the time I was 30 I had had so many of these experiences that I decided to start my own business.

In a nutshell the answer to this question is that to be a Woman Leader in Clark County, and anywhere else for that matter, requires that you "think like a man," that you are "pushy," and that you "break the rules." At least that is how many women leaders are seen. However, I prefer to put a feminist spin on this definition and to relieve future women leaders of some old sexist baggage. For the twenty-first century to be a Woman Leader in Clark County requires (1) pride in independent thinking, (2) fearless determination to accomplish your goals, and (3) a willingness to create opportunities where others see limitations.