What Makes a (Woman) Leader?

You may be familiar with Daniel Goleman’s article, “What Makes a Leader?” It’s been considered a groundbreaking piece that is often referenced when discussing leadership and emotional intelligence. No doubt, it offers critical insight; however, it fails to acknowledge gendered differences in leadership and the “labyrinth” women must navigate to take their rightful place at the helm. 

Women and men have different paths to the top, with women holding far fewer high-level leadership positions. Intersectional factors have an even greater impact on one’s ability to climb the ladder. 

As Goleman points out, research demonstrates that emotional intelligence is a key factor in leadership success. Yet, women and men display different strengths in EI. Likewise, a lifetime of operating in male dominated spaces have created particular skills for women, and especially women with intersectional identities, that makes them great leaders.

Skills that Make a Woman Leader

  1. GRIT

Grit is more than a buzzword; it is a powerful advantage that women demonstrate throughout their professional paths. Angela Duckworth explains that it is a combination of non-cognitive skills that include resolve, tenacity, commitment, purpose, and a belief in yourself and your goals.  It is a powerful motivational tool that, when possessed, allows women to be resilient and excel regardless of obstacles.   


Breaking rules is part of leadership. To be visionary, you have to change the status quo. While women are less likely to break the rules, as Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith explain, women who do, find greater leadership success. Navigating the labyrinth through male dominated spaces gives women the opportunity to understand which rules need to be broken, why, and how to do it in a way that will promote positive change.  


While men are generally motivated by money, women are generally motivated by happiness and studies demonstrate that women are happier at work. Thus, women choose careers and accept positions they know they will enjoy. As a result, they excel at what they do, their enthusiasm becomes contagious, and their teams and organizations are more successful. 


A recognized strength for women is the ability to build relationships and collaborate. Time spent in the trenches navigating the testosterone filled waters of the professional world, women tend to work together, lift each other up, and celebrate each other’s successes. As a result, women generally engage a democratic and collaborative leadership style and recognize mentorship as an important part of their roles. These qualities demonstrate emotional intelligence and support leadership success. 


While men and women are equally emotionally intelligent, strengths in different components vary based on gender. While men tend to have stronger capabilities in confidence, assertiveness, and stress tolerance; women demonstrate higher levels of relationship building, social responsibility, and empathy. While all of these skills are important, areas where women demonstrate strength are recognized as critical for leadership success and empathy, in particular, has become noted as the most critical skill for leading through a crisis.

While women continue to have less representation in top leadership positions, as Helgesen and Goldsmith point out, women are consistently recognized as stronger leaders. Gender does matter in leadership, and the adversity that women experience throughout their career paths due to bias help shape their skills.  Grit, rule breaking, happiness, collaboration, and emotional intelligence are a powerful combination that make diverse women dynamic and successful leaders. 

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