As an Adventure Racing World Champion, I’m often asked how teams can excel at teamwork. As a woman competing and working in the historically male-dominated worlds of adventure sports and firefighting, I’m often asked about the dynamic of female leadership.
In my racing and firefighting life, I’ve taken on various leadership roles. Sometimes I led from the front, many times I observed from the back, and I always learned something from the experience. After studying great leaders and leading my nonprofit, Project Athena Foundation, I found three reasons why women can excel in leadership.
We Inspire the TeamOne of the most important things I learned from watching great leaders was the importance of inspiring your team. Rather than trying to impress their teams, the best leaders left their egos behind. They realized they didn’t have to be amazing all the time, bark orders, or know all the answers.
Instead, the best leaders challenged their teams with good questions, listened to their team’s ideas, and inspired their teammates to pursue their solutions. My favorite captains from my firefighting days were those who saw their rank not as power but as an increased obligation for the safety, success, and happiness of the crew and the public. Looking out for others and creating a sense of community comes naturally to many women, giving us more insight to inspire our teams.
We Are Great Situational LeadersThe best leaders do not see management and leadership as synonyms. Managers facilitate their team's success by allowing their teammates to be leaders. Great leaders understand they are surrounded by smart, talented people who may be stronger in a given area than the assigned employee, and they let others lead based on their strengths (not their ranks or titles).
Women tend to be great situational leaders because we have strong empathy and awareness of what others need, and we can flow easily back and forth from friend to mentor and commander to coach. This is the leadership I try to practice as part of Project Athena. I take time to get to know my team so we can have fun, learn from each other, and trust each other to take the lead.
We Use Effective Leadership StylesIn the Kinetic Leadership section of How Winning Works, I discuss the Harvard Business Review study about situational leadership and several distinct styles that are proven effective for bottom-line results. The great news for women is that we tend to excel in the top three leadership styles of the study.
Women tend to be great affiliative leaders, coaching leaders, and democratic leaders. Affiliative leaders work to create emotional bonds to bring a sense of bonding and belonging to a team.
Coaching leaders develop people for the future and help them use their strengths. Finally, democratic-style leaders build consensus through participation.
When it comes to leadership, women have a great advantage due to their natural tendencies to nurture and connect. We know how to inspire, let people lead through their strengths, and adapt to different leadership styles.