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Gray Rule
October 2011 | VOLUME 12, NUMBER 4spacer
Gray Rule
A New Approach to Leadership: How Women Are Influencing Leadership Values
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Elaine M. Egan, Consultant, New York, NY
A New Approach to Leadership: How Women Are Influencing Leadership Values
The post-recession economy continues be challenged with the rapid globalization of industries and professional service firms.  ....

The post-recession economy continues be challenged with the rapid globalization of industries and professional service firms. Faced with daunting shareholder and partnership expectations, executive leaders are attempting to prepare their companies and firms for the future. Developing priorities that form the next generation of leaders and retain key talent has influenced the traditional "lockstep" career and compensation paths in law firms and challenged corporate traditions of leadership as well. Maintaining core values while remaining competitive is highlighted during strategic management meetings and "C" suite discussions.

The Female Vision: Women's Real Power at Work, by Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson, draws upon current research addressing the differences in workplace gender views. I had the opportunity to interview Sally and Julie after meeting them at a National Council for Research on Women program.

Sally Helgesen
Sally Helgesen
Julie Johnson
Julie Johnson

Elaine: Female and male perspectives have long been a cultural discussion. How and why did you decide to write this book?

Sally: Julie is a coach and I am a writer and consultant. We both belong to an organization started by Marshall Goldsmith in the mid-1990s called the Learning Network. It's a group of independent practitioners in organizational leadership and executive coaching that focuses on creative discussions about changes we see in industry and business. A few years ago, Julie and I were talking about how many successful women were leaving good positions. We both kept hearing the same thing from these women—"it wasn't worth it." We both wanted to explore what that meant.

Elaine: What wasn't worth it? How did you identify what these women were telling you?

Sally: Interestingly the disjunction in values at work was "not worth it" for women. There are satisfaction differentials for women that are not sustainable in the current work model.

Elaine: How do you define those satisfaction differentials?

Sally: Capacity for broad-spectrum notice, ability to find satisfaction in daily experiences, viewing work in a larger social context.

Elaine: That sounds a lot like "triple bottom line" for measuring success. During the December 2010 TED Conference, I watched a program with Halla Tomasdottir, co-founder of Audur Capital in Iceland. Tomasdottir was a featured speaker and she alluded to a similar focus. Since Iceland is a frightening example of how the unchecked financial market led to disastrous results, she was certainly given a lot of press. Tomasdottir's commitment to balance and female values in business seems to mirror your assessment. One of her comments was that a lack of diversity leads to sameness in doing business that is not sustainable. The business values that she and her partner are committed to are:

  • Risk awareness: we will not invest in things we do not understand
  • Straight talking: using simple language people understand—even bad news
  • Believe in emotional capital: emotional due diligence is just as important as financial due diligence
  • Profits with principles: we care how we make our profit and are willing to take a long-term view

Elaine: Based on these female business values, are you seeing a different approach in corporate leadership values?

Sally: Retention programs are becoming more ambitious and more focused, in part because clients want to see it—partnership firms especially are feeling that pressure. Firms recruit a high percentage of female associates, many of whom were top graduates, but the partnership percentage remains stuck at around 15 percent and the number of top corporate women and board members is often lower. Of course, people are less likely to leave their jobs in a slow economy, but attracting and retaining the best female talent is still a challenge.

Elaine: What is going on in corporate and professional service firms with respect to leadership development?

Julie: The economic crisis raised the veil. People in talent management roles are beginning to look at leadership models that use different language. They are also identifying leadership characteristics that would never have been a part of the next generation of high potential talent in an organization. Language and concepts such as mindfulness, trust, and authenticity are part of the leadership conversation and curriculum.

Elaine: You talk a little about science supporting the value of "soft leadership concepts." Can you elaborate on that?

Julie: Hard data from functional MRIs reveal differences in how men and women process and evaluate information. Also, quantitative studies of the role of intuition and empathy in decision making show that these capacities are key to strategic thinking. They've always been considered soft skills, but they provide hard value.

Elaine: You mentioned that you work with many law firm clients. Are you seeing law firms redefine leadership to include these soft skills?

Julie: In the past year firms have started to hire professional coaches and invest in leadership development. The ABA issued a finding that women leaving law firms is a problem on many levels including financial. The cost of recruiting and training a class made up of 50 percent women and reaping a 15 percent partnership rate is not a sustainable business practice. I know of only three major firms that are addressing this issue. However, all of a sudden I see the emergence of an associate development program that includes an associate advisory role. This role acts as a sounding board for an associate's development and leadership issues.

Elaine: You seem to be able to parallel what is happening in MBA programs with law school training as far as developing subjective qualities and cultural nuance. Can you speak more about this?

Julie: Some law schools are beginning to see a need to build on the "attorney identity" element. For example John Alexander, who served as president for the Center for Creative Leadership, is now faculty at Elon University School of Law and part of a team running the school's Leadership Program. John is also a member of the Learning Network. The text for this program is The Leading Lawyer: A Guide to Practicing Law and Leadership, by Robert Cullen. John recently participated in the Building Better Lawyers Conference at Stanford University.

I also had an opportunity to speak with John Alexander about this commitment to leadership as part of a law school curriculum.

Elaine: Would you talk about how the Leadership Program began and how it supports the legal curriculum?

John: Leadership is contextual and relevant to the practice of law and how individuals learn to lead. Effective leadership requires more than analytical skills; high achievers may not have developed corresponding emotional intelligence. This remains true today for lawyers just as it does in other high achieving careers. We owe it to students to help prepare them for their roles as leaders through self-awareness and development of key interpersonal skills.John Alexander
John Alexander

Elaine: Are there certain attributes that correspond to a leader in the context of the legal environment?

John: Well, obviously we look to attorneys to possess integrity, behave ethically, and advocate skillfully for their clients, but there are other attributes such as self-awareness, self-direction, self-control, and the ability to manage conflict, persuade, and empathize.

Elaine: How are you breaking down the program so each student is evolving as a leader?

John: The first year we focus on issues of self-awareness and leading the "self." The second year emphasizes leading groups and teams. The third year is a commitment to legacy leadership. We also have leadership fellows selected during the first year who demonstrate leadership ability. In their third year, these fellows participate in a Capstone leadership course in which they design their own independent study project, as well as assume leadership roles in the school.


Countless studies, books, and articles are written on leadership. This topic has drawn a great deal of attention and reflection during an economic crisis, where leadership was identified as part of the problem leading to a global collapse of markets and countries unable to support their infrastructures and societal obligations. The current global economic system is crying out for new leaders, not just new laws to manage behavior. What qualities should we be identifying for sustainable leadership values? The Female Vision: Women's Real Power at Work addresses the unique perspective, such as broad-spectrum notice, that women contribute to decision making and leadership. This perspective will impact strategic leadership values and promote triple bottom line goals while retaining talent and developing the leadership values required in years to come.

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