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What women bring

When asked recently in an academic context which three qualities I appreciate most in a leader, I was struck by how the three qualities I chose were distinctly feminine. Had I been asked this same question four years ago, my response might have been similar. I do not believe, however, that five years ago I would have experienced the same level of ease or clarity in my articulation of a defining shortlist which aligns with what many would call "the feminine side" of human nature.

Our current reality of a worldwide pandemic and the socioeconomic unraveling it has triggered have brought the concept of leadership to the forefront of my daily life. Prior to 2016, the stakes for successful leadership were simply not as high. The current global pandemic, ongoing human rights’ struggles and intense weather events impact all of us, and are no longer simply regionalized concerns or political talking points. Decisions made by leaders around the world and their resulting implications upon global security make the evaluation of leadership a more personally relevant study than at any other period in my lifetime.

In my estimation, the three qualities most essential in a leader are empathy, integrity and resilience. These three bulwarks permit a cascade of additional characteristics which spring from the grounding these three core qualities provide. Empathy is first, manifested as the capacity to genuinely comprehend the mindset and reality faced by those a leader represents. Integrity logically follows empathy because in understanding those people for whom one is responsible, a leader must also be trustworthy enough to utilize this deep understanding for the greater good of the many, rather than for simply increasing her personal advantage. Thirdly, resilience is the anchor without which the other qualities would flounder when presented with the inevitable ambiguity brought by crisis.

Leadership usually implies great strength and determination, but great force of will without the wisdom furnished by empathy is tantamount to an edifice in an earthquake zone built upon a foundation not tethered to bedrock. A leader must be able to put herself in the shoes of her constituents or those for whom she is responsible. Her empathy acts as a compass, bringing her repeatedly back to the key concerns which are most important to those she guides. A good leader constantly seeks to assimilate the motivations of her community into the strategy of her governing plan. Sound leadership must rest upon her sincere belief in the assiduous inclusion of diverse viewpoints from a wide cross-section of the group; such openness can only persist within a tolerant perspective which is curious about and appreciative of disparate viewpoints, even when they conflict with her own. The feedback gleaned by a discerning leader informs her approach to problem-solving and bolsters her confidence to take calculated risks. Empathy in a leader tempers her inclination to exhibit arrogance; it strives to avoid her disconnectedness from the fundamental issues of the larger group.

A leader’s genuine connectedness to her group must be buttressed by her integrity. Those who follow a leader do so because they trust that she has their best interests at heart. If they instead perceive that their leader is untruthful and manipulative, they will rebel against her authority and balk at making the necessary sacrifices and commitments which support her strategic plans. A leader’s articulated principles substantiate a critical sense of collective honor for the group and embody the collective duty of care she expects from those who follow her. This bond of shared honor is maintained only through her sincere dedication to high standards of personal conduct; the example must start at the top. Faith in leadership endures when a leader is transparent about her own disappointments and failures. She is subject to the same level of accountability that she requires from others. The leader personally demonstrates, through clear communication and concrete action, the group’s shared beliefs which transcend pettiness and posturing. Such purposeful leadership led by aspirational integrity creates a cultural vision of positivity and hope which promotes goal-driven collective behaviors.

A leader can possess both of the aforementioned qualities, but if she lacks resilience she will not persevere in a crisis. It is no accident that history’s most beloved leaders have earned their accolades steering through situations which posed existential threats to both leadership and the group it served. The potentiality to accomplish a seemingly unachievable task is never a given, and if it were, there would be no need to study the attributes vital for sound leadership. Resilience allows a leader to adapt according to developing information and obstacles, and in turn to accept, own and learn how best to move forward with her newly-informed determination. The quality of resilience ensures that all strengths brought to a group by its individual members are encouraged to evolve. Resilient leaders most fear complacency, in all its forms, within their organizations. They fully recognize that confidence stems from constant self-reflection and honest reassessment of the leader’s aptitude and readiness to address future challenges.

Teaching technology to future female leaders in Kentucky

A woman's resiliency emboldens her to do her homework and show humility. She does not equate her frankness regarding shortcomings in her leadership with weakness. To the contrary, she is convinced that intentional transparency concerning current shortcomings is the only blueprint for future growth and improvement in her leadership.

'I think that’s what Toni Morrison and Alice Walker understand, the secret language of women. That it’s not a secret at all; men just don’t know how to listen.'

—Marlon James

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