Real Leaders

The Answer for Women in Leadership

In part 1 of The Only Way for Women to Win, I made a case that if women try to advance in leadership by acting more like men, then it’s a sure path to failure. I’m quite sure of this. I am because whenever I have seen women fire themselves up to compete for power in a hierarchical organization, they typically fail to achieve either success or happiness. There are exceptions of course. If you have the personality and brain design of Margaret Thatcher then you’re probably ready to beat men at being manly. But thankfully most women do not have Margaret Thatcher’s brain.

Indeed they have something far more powerful… a very active left prefrontal cortex. This is a huge advantage in the new business world we live in that demands thinking agility, customer empathy, and a neurological interest building large amounts of social capital.

We stand at the edge of a great opportunity… if we don’t blow it.

Men and women literally see the world differently. Men and women regularly look at the same set of facts and see different opportunities as well as different threats. We all know that. We experienced it with our parents and we experience it with co-workers daily. It doesn’t seem to matter if both men and women have the same IQ, the same education and similar life experience. We simply notice different things; assign greater importance to different things; and often have slightly different goals.

An exciting development is that recent brain research gives us new clues about these differences and how important they are when we apply them to leadership.

60 years ago researchers Blake and Mouton developed a leadership model that recognized that people have two primary orientations. Some people focus on tasks while others focus on people.

I refer to these two different ways of looking at reality as a mindset for results versus a mindset for relationships.

Leaders who focus on results usually use three critical skills.

  1. Goal focus
  2. Drive results
  3. Relentless accountability

These three skills have been essential to building the old enterprises of the last century.  They are almost everything you need for old-school, hierarchical organizations to efficiently make money. These skills naturally control costs, drive stretch goals and get people to do more with less. They are the master skills of efficiency.

If these skills alone characterize a leadership culture an organization will devolve into becoming a dinosaur.

We have lots of dinosaur organizations today. Size is their only advantage because agile, they are not. I have found the senior leadership levels of most businesses today to be jammed packed with results-minded leaders. That should come as no surprise.  Haven’t we been told that results are the only thing that matter… well, what if that’s not true? What if only being results-minded actually gets in the way of success? Turns out that in many ways it does.

I’m not saying that results are unimportant. What I am proposing is that if you over-focus on results you are much less likely to make the radical changes necessary to innovate, blow the minds of customers, and establish a unique value proposition that get people to insist on buying from you. It’s clear that businesses that are booming today are driven by massive attention on relationships; genuine empathy for customers, endless collaboration on execution and a drive to develop the talent of employees.

The very best leaders have a unique blend of results and relationship skills. There are not very many of them because it is frankly unnatural.

Remember my reference to the right prefrontal cortex? Well, research confirms that’s the part of the brain that controls most men’s thoughts. Brain researchers have identified it as the source of ‘self-enhancement.’ That’s a fancy way of saying a drive for status, power and control. When you’re right prefrontal cortex becomes your brain engine you’re constantly scanning threats and opportunities that strengthens your power and obliterates obstacles.

This turns out to be quite a big deal as far as reducing brain agility.  

For the right prefrontal cortex, aggression, dominance, blame and punishment are natural ways to express leadership. You’ll notice that highly aggressive politicians frequently bang the gong to go to war. And you’ll often hear male business leaders of failing companies calling for more accountability, hard work and heroic sacrifice. After all what else can they do? It’s half-brain thinking and it dominates our institutions.

That’s why having a few women leaders to serve as garnish to teams of red-meat eating male leaders rarely   changes things.  And remember the worst thing for a woman to do is to start thinking with the right prefrontal cortex… just to fit in or to be heard. (Please don’t confuse our left and right prefrontal cortexes with the popular but over simplified right brain – left brain model. The prefrontal cortex specifically drives judgment and decision making….sometimes called your executive center.)

So how do women’s brains work?

The left prefrontal cortex is the mental dashboard of most women. Researchers report that this part of the brain is driven by ‘pro-social’ values. Opportunities served by empathy, creating solutions that help people live better lives, and inspiring through values is what left prefrontal cortex is looking for. As you can imagine this kind of thinking is a huge advantage when trying to come up with innovations that customers actually value.

This is also the mindset for collaboration to drive fast execution.

It is the mindset that promotes inclusion, embraces diversity and seeks to clarify ambiguity. Getting the right details right so that you achieve the intended effect is vital to the left prefrontal cortex.

Are you beginning to see how women, using the strengths of their own brains, are the exact leadership intervention that business and every other institution needs?

Let me be clear I am not saying that men are useless.  Not all men are selfish nor are all women saints. Great leaders flow between the left and right prefrontal cortex like mental martial artists. They integrate both results and relationship skills to achieve consistently remarkable results.  Lincoln was driven by his empathy but employed the rifle and bayonet to free millions.

Mother Teresa used the claws of a lioness to fight for Calcutta’s untouchables. (It was said, she was willing to tirelessly clean up peoples’ sh!t… but refused to take any.) But such agility is extraordinary. In fact it’s too rare to make much of a difference in a ‘Change the World Way,’ and yet the world must change or needless suffering will grow.

So I decided to do something about it.

For decades I’ve tried to make workplaces work better. Heaven knows they need to! Command and control hierarchies driven by right prefrontal cortexes are not great places for human beings to be at their best. It amplifies the dark side of capitalism and often creates sewers of stress that suck employees right down the drain. And unhealthy workplaces often create unhealthy products cleverly designed to assault the vulnerabilities of consumers.

The range of gross-out products is almost endless… from wealth destroying mortgages to health destroying medicines. Yes, the right prefrontal cortex is not driven by your values but by your fears and your competitive drive to be better than someone else, because somehow that makes you more important. On the other hand being completely driven by your left prefrontal cortex may make you great at nurturing but not so good at driving profitability or turning a good idea into a great big business.

After spending years fruitlessly trying to make male fire-breathing competitive leaders more compassionate and humane and trying to stoke competitive fire in the hearts of female leaders I gave up trying to change their mindsets. It takes too long. And in stressful moments of truth I found most go right back to their native wiring.

Instead I developed a process. It’s based on behavioral psychology that focuses on changing peoples’ behavior in order to change their minds.

After years of analyzing the research findings of several long-term studies on leadership effectiveness and conducting my own ‘Apple to Zappos’ study I was able to, once and for all, see what leaders do who combine the positive attributes of results and relationship skills. I call it 5-STAR leadership. It combines the ‘right PFC’ power of consistent, focused goal setting and accountability-driven results with the ‘left PFC’ power of empathy-driven innovation and collaborative execution. I’ve created simple instructions that enable leaders to set goals, inspire innovation, collaborate, initiate action and continually learn how to do it better.

It’s so simple that I am able to teach nearly anyone how to revolutionize their leadership effectiveness in 60 minutes.

I know…it sounds a bit bold…or crazy. It’s not. I’ve been proving its power in large stressed-out organizations for the past 18 months and I’m starting new corporate projects right now.

All I can tell you is that it really works.

It is so simple to learn that people who use this 5-STAR process regularly begin to subconsciously reorder their daily communication so that they’re more effective with their families and loved ones as well as their bosses and colleagues. What’s exciting for me personally is that I am now working with a young powerhouse woman leader, Ash Robinson, who wants to bring this to women everywhere.

Ash is extraordinary. After a brilliant college career, she raised capital and built a business designed to provide accessible and enriching early education for children and created a community for busy young parents. She sold it for truckload of money by the time she was 27. Most importantly, she lives full life–enjoying rich, committed family relationships, motherhood, and friendships integrated with her entrepreneurial career.

Ash successfully faces the real challenges of 21st century women who desire to be the best version of themselves as well as the most remarkable leaders possible. Her power doesn’t come from being manly, it comes from being whole. After five years and several business successes later Ash decided to work with me to create Genius Circles of women leaders who want to revolutionize their careers and their companies.

By learning and applying the new lessons of whole-brained, 5 STAR Leadership combined with the science of personal, positive well-being… they are pursuing both success AND happiness.

We’re currently looking for the right place to build our first Center and will start beta testing our women’s Genius Circles this summer.

It’s true that there’s a lot that has to happen to convert vision to reality, yet in many ways that’s the fun part. At my age “leaning in” is not enough. I have to be all in… it’s my last stand.

P.S.  I am not alone in the quest to bring gender balance to business leadership. 50/50BY2020 is the brain child of Kevin Maggiacomo a CEO who is hiring, developing and promoting women as fast as he can because he sees it as a competitive imperative.  Go to the website… take the pledge. P.P.S. Please connect with me on LinkedIn to be updated on my other leadership activities. P.P.S.S. Did you know the popularity of my bi-weekly ThoughtRockets is still growing like crazy? It’s because they’re based on today’s science of positive well-being, take 30 seconds to read, and are easy to do.

Sign up here and see for yourself.


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