Research shows female employees often possess specific leadership attributes needed in tough times

By Suzanna de Baca, Business Publications Corp. president and CEO

Women do hard things better.

I did a double take when I saw that statement in a Harvard Business Review article called “When women leaders leave, the losses multiply.” While I avoid unfounded generalizations, I am fascinated by valid research that explores leadership styles and behaviors. So I was intrigued when the article referred to a study that found women may be better suited for leading in tough times because we tend to possess two key attributes: compassion and wisdom.

Led by the Potential Project, the research study set out to learn how leaders do the hard things that come with top jobs while still remaining good human beings. They looked specifically at compassion and wisdom, which are important individually but when combined have an exponentially higher impact on important metrics like employee engagement and satisfaction. When they parsed the data by gender, the differences were stark: 55% of women in their study were ranked as being wise and compassionate, compared with only 27% of men. 

We all know by now that the pandemic’s effect on women in the workforce has been severe and will take years to reverse. As of February this year, there were nearly 2 million fewer women in the U.S. workforce, according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis.

The loss of women in the workforce has delivered a blow to gender parity, women’s career advancement and representation in leadership. What’s more, fewer women in the workforce means fewer leaders who can offer this specific kind of leadership: the ability to do hard things in a human way. Therefore, recruitment and retention of women – and the development of compassion and wisdom in all leaders – will be critical for organizations as they navigate a rapidly changing and disrupted business environment.  

With this in mind, I asked local leaders, “Why is it so important to demonstrate compassion and wisdom, and how can we all get better at developing these critical traits?” 

Michelle Book, executive director, Food Bank of Iowa: Women gain wisdom and compassion through a broad range of life experiences in their role as primary caregiver for children, parents and the community. When challenges arise, extraordinary leaders devote precious time to listen to their people, gather ideas, acknowledge fears and address concerns so the team can move forward together. This takes wisdom and compassion, which female leaders possess.  

Miriam Lewis, chief inclusion officer, Principal Financial Group: Compassion is caring, and wisdom is knowing. While we may have one of them without the other, we are most effective when they coexist in our interactions. Compassion, coupled with wisdom, permeates deeper human connections. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt said it best: “People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.”

Dawn Martinez Oropeza, executive director, Al Éxito: If the global pandemic taught us anything, it is the importance of being compassionate with one another, especially in the workplace. Al Éxito shifted operations to make sure that the people we serve and work with were taken care of, safe and thriving. Being focused on people first helped the organization thrive and remain relevant. It was the wise choice.

Sanjita Pradhan, senior consultant, Cook Ross: The world is complex, our lives are complex, and unfortunately, we don’t operate in a vacuum. Although we spend one-third of our lives at work, what happens outside of our work affects our ability to focus at work, be productive, innovative and contribute fully to the mission of our organization. Leading with compassion allows us to humanize the workplace, build connections with our employees, provide the support they need, foster inclusion and belonging, and unlock their human potential.

Maddie Rocha Smith, communications and events manager, One Iowa: For a workplace to be successful, you need a wise leader to see that the most innovative teams have leaders who are compassionate enough to allow folks to take risks and openly express their creativity without fear of judgment. We’re all better off working in an environment where we can be our true selves. 

Bobbi Segura, regional manager, Women Lead Change: Studies show that emotionally intelligent leaders foster cohesive and innovative teams. Incorporation of the best attributes of those around you, including compassion and wisdom, goes a long way toward building confidence in a team and a trusted leadership presence. This unique combination of traits, along with biological differences in how women make decisions and communicate, leads to successful female leaders. 

5 ways to lead with compassion and wisdom

  1. Demonstrate empathy, authenticity and vulnerability. “Today’s employees are not looking for bosses; they are looking for coaches and mentors,” says Pradhan, emphasizing that intentionally building one-on-one time with employees – especially important for remote and hybrid workers – and showing genuine interest in their development and growth with a coaching and mentoring mindset is key. Pradhan recommends asking the following specific questions on a regular basis: How are you doing? What is getting in the way of you being productive at work? How can I help?  
  2. Learn from your mistakes. It takes time and practice to lead with compassion and wisdom. You won’t have the right answer every time. “Learn from your mistakes,” says Segura. “Be willing to listen to and consider new ideas.” She encourages leaders to exhibit a firm belief in their abilities and to build relationships with potential allies.
  3. Build confidence. Leadership often means giving feedback when a team member needs improvement, but leaders have a choice in how to deliver that message. “The most compassionate leaders are the ones who give you the grace to make a mistake and allow you the room to grow and learn rather than burn your confidence,” says Rocha Smith. Consider how you can lift your team up and support them, even when growth or progress is needed. 
  4. Create a healthy atmosphere. “It is important to have a healthy work environment that considers the whole person,” says Martinez Oropeza. She encourages leaders to provide a foundation in the workplace where everyone, and the organization itself, can thrive.
  5. Be human-centered. “Treat your co-workers as humans first, co-workers second,” says Rocha Smith, who emphasizes that this frame of mind shifts how you interact with team members. Lewis echoes this point, saying it is important to first lead with compassion and then connect with one another on a human level. “We’re in the age of personalization and, above all, we’re humans first,” she says, “I am a woman of faith, wife, mother, college football fan, and I get to lead inclusion at Principal. Who are you?”
Categories: Leadership