Our Inherent Ability to Lead

It’s no secret that men and women are different, from the way we look to the way we behave.  Amongst those differences are inherent leadership strengths each gender boasts.  As female leaders, we often spend time focusing on men’s natural leadership qualities because men achieve and retain the majority of leadership positions, whether it’s on the executive board of a Fortune 500 company or a local non-profit organization. But what about the natural leadership qualities women possess?

Women are spoken of as the nurturing gender.  Historically, we are the house wives that take care of our husbands and children, an important role to be sure.  What is it that makes us the nurturing gender? We are perceptive, intuitive, and empathetic. These qualities help us discern the needs of our children, validate their emotions, and help them grow and develop into mature, functional adults. These same qualities also help us be effective leaders.

Perceptiveness, intuition, and empathy are listed among some of the most important qualities for leaders along with communication, quick decision making skills, inspiration, honesty, focus, and confidence.  These qualities help us identify potential problems in a business plan or with team members, navigate troubled or unchartered waters, and connect with our team members.

Being Perceptive

In my current job, I went through a particularly troubling period of professional development and wasn’t handling it with much grace.  I worked closely with a colleague who was incredibly smart, talented, and had years more experience than I had.  While she was supportive of me, I lacked self-confidence and became very insecure about my abilities and contribution to the team. My insecurities began manifesting as competitiveness and short-temperedness.  My direct boss is a male and his boss is a female.  It was my boss’s boss that first noticed my behavior and change in temperament.  She recognized my insecurity and made a point to recognize my contributions. She also had frank conversations with me and helped me learn to value my own strengths so I didn’t light a bonfire to my job and career.  She was able to not only discern that there was something wrong in my world but was also perceptive about how my behavior was affecting the team and my professional career. Most importantly, she acted on her perceptions for the betterment of me individually and her team.

Why is it that women are particularly skilled at perceiving nuances before they are known to the world? It starts in the womb when a baby girl’s brain is bathed in a 9-month estrogen bath. The immersion in estrogen causes more connections to develop in the communication and emotion centers in the female brain.  As a result, baby girls are much more interested in studying faces and gleaning meaning from the various emotions on those faces.  As girls grow up, they remain more adept at interpreting emotion and non-verbal cues, thanks to the robust communication and emotion centers in their brains.  Women are hard-wired to read emotion nuances.

This ability to interpret emotions based on facial expressions and non-verbal communication is what makes us perceptive leaders.  It is important to test our perceptions and then take appropriate action.  My boss who reached out to me when I was feeling insecure and competitive knew something was up and had ideas as to what I was experiencing but never assumed she was right about her perceptions.  She asked me what I was experiencing and feeling.  What I told her confirmed her perceptions, and she was then able to take steps with me to remediate my internal dialogue and outer behavior.  Always test your perceptions for accuracy before taking action to ensure you take the best action.

The Female Instinct

A close cousin to perceptiveness is intuition and women have it in spades. My mom can tell right away when my dad is internally solving a problem at work or talking to someone he is frustrated with.  She can point it out before he even realizes he is having this internal dialogue.  Dr. Louann Brizendine calls these gut feelings and they are biologically linked to intuition.  She states in her book, The Female Brain, “the areas of the brain that track gut feelings are larger and more sensitive in the female brain…the female brain is gifted at quickly assessing the thoughts, beliefs, and intentions of others, based on the smallest hints.”

These gut feelings help us perceive the needs of those around us.  It also helps us navigate a team through unchartered territory or troubling times. It helps us recognize problems before they arise…or at least, before they are blaring alarms.  It is important to trust our gut when it comes to leading.  Sometimes, as women, we are told our gut feelings are all in our headthat our gut feelings are out in left field.  The truth is that our gut feelings are in our head but they aren’t crazy. They are real and often quite accurate because our brains are simply more sensitive to the tiniest emotional nuance and body language.

As women, we need to trust our gut.  Build confidence in your gut feelings by addressing them.  The more you act on your gut feelings, or instincts, the more confidence you will have in them.

Empathize & Connect

Our intuition is closely linked to our natural ability to empathize with others.  Since we readily recognize emotions from the smallest cues, we are primed to understand, on a personal level, the emotions of those around us.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix gives us a perfect visual for how men and women recognize emotions and empathize with others.  After Cho and Harry kiss, Harry talks about the experience with Ron and Hermione.

This scene is a very real example of how men and women perceive and understand the same situation differently, and thus, how they respond to it. Hermione had the ability to empathize with Cho; she understood what Cho was feeling without actually experiencing those emotions herself.

A woman’s hard-wired ability to read emotions and non-verbal cues also drives our ability to empathize with those around us. Dr. Brizendine tells of a study which showed that the mere act of imagining someone in a particular emotional state can trigger that same emotional state in the observer and that women are particularly skilled at this type of emotional mirroring, or, in other words, empathizing.

The ability to empathize helps us build connections with people.  When we empathize with someone, we understand what they are feeling and why they are feeling a certain way.  When people feel understood, they feel connected.  The ability to connect with people enhances our ability to lead because people follow people with whom they connect.  So next time someone is upset, take the time to step into their world and validate them. Take the time to care about the person more than the project.  Doing so will help you build a strong, connected team.

Embrace Your Strengths

As female leaders, we do have more barriers to successful leadership than men do.  We must continue to educate and influence the communities we live in to break down these barriers. We must continue to develop our leadership qualities and strengthen our strengths. As women, we are not lesser or greater than men; we are simply different and just as capable. Using our natural abilities as women enables us to more easily connect with people and build trust.  As we gain more leadership positions in our communities and businesses, our inherent qualities as females will help us remain likeable and approachable. Our inherent qualities are essential to be an influential leader.


What Makes an Effective Leader (Notre Dame); The 9 Traits That Define Great Leadership (INC.com); Brizendine, Louanne. (2006) The Female Brain. New York, New YorkBroadway Books

Chelsea Anne Baugh has a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing and a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Utah. She currently works as a Nurse Specialist at Bard Access Systems. Her experience as an oncology nurse led her to begin a blog where she teaches people how to achieve their life dreams, develop meaningful and healthy relationships, and practice self-care. When she isn’t working or blogging, she enjoys reading, road cycling, hiking, and spending time with her husband and family.

Please visit www.chelseaannebaugh.com.

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