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Women Leading Men: A Man’s Perspective

A week ago, the local chamber of commerce hosted a women’s roundtable event. I am always intrigued by these events. I have attended a fair share of these events and found the information useful for anyone in a leadership position. I am never sure if there were some nugget that women can find practical that addresses them in a uniquely different way from their male counterparts also looking to improve on their ability to lead. I suppose that is a testament to the subject of leadership. The theory and practice of leadership is the same for men and women. Moreover, the truths about leadership apply equally regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion and of course, gender.

After serving in leadership positions most of my adult life as a Marine Infantry Officer, and in business from Chief Operating Officer, to vice president, partner and now heading my own firm, I have had the great pleasure of working directly for some of the most impressive women leaders, both in uniform and out. I have also had some very impressive women work directly for me. These experiences and my background as an Infantry Officer, allow me to reflect on these experiences and conclude—there are some subtle differences when it comes to women leading men from a man’s perspective.

In my experience, I offer five generalities for women to be aware of in leading men. I will address three. The top three: first, men expect more from women. Second, men will gossip about their female boss much quicker than they would dare too about a male boss. Third, men expect a female leader will fail. Are these comments true of every man a woman leads? The answer to that is, of course, NO. These are observations from one leader to another with a comment on taking action to assist in guiding female leaders on the path of continued growth.

Men expect more from women leaders

It was a Friday evening and, as was the custom for Marine Officers, there was the normal gathering at the Officer’s Club. Typically, the gathering was to listen to many a war story from those more seasoned and for some decompressing. This was Paris Island, South Carolina the home of the most famous recruit training depot in the world.

On this particular evening, the training battalion executive officers were gathered around the bar sipping cold beer and relating stories about our various battalion commanders. The stories grew in length and level of exploit as officers told their story of why their battalion commander is the best leader there ever was. I was the last to tell the story of my commander, and all expected the greatest tale of daring do, the benefit of telling your story last. I told a story of having the highest recruit graduation rates for the quarter. The fewest injuries over a six-month period, getting hurt at Paris Island can be lifelong injury. I told a story of how the drill instructors followed the lead of the commander with a zeal that made the other battalions pale by contrast. Then I told them the commander I spoke of was not my commander but the commander of the female battalion—a woman!

After the deafening silence, the comments that followed were amazing—“What would you expect it was a female battalion.” The comment implied that leading women and becoming a female Marine is easy. Let there be no mistake, the Marine Corps expects as much from its women as it does its men. There are no breaks because of gender.

Men will gossip about their female boss much quicker than they would dare too about a male boss

I am certain it comes as no surprise that men gossip. While at a cocktail hour preceding a fundraising event dinner, I found myself in a slow moving line at the bar. I was behind a few men that clearly worked together. Their conversation was about their female boss. It ran the range from how she was dressed for the occasion to how many glasses of wine she was “throwing back.” I found that comment particularly humorous being that they were on the line to the bar. The willingness to be critical of their boss in such a fashion was an indication of the level of respect the boss commanded.

Men expect a female leader will fail

In a perfect world, no one wants to see another fail. The realities of life speak otherwise. There is a morbid attraction we, as human beings, have for the evening news where the order of the day is viewing the failures of others. It is no different in business. There is simply a tendency for men to expect their female leadership to be overwhelmed, and seek the assistance of another. Why would this be the case? Recall the comment made by Marine Officers at the club. There is a belief that a woman cannot handle the same level of pressure as a man and consistently produce quality results. The belief is when things move toward the unexpected women will need assistance and assistance will come from a man, of course.

Take action

Here, are three recommended actions that address the three generalities: be professional, carry yourself like a leader, and never let them see you sweat.

Being professional

Take advantage of the power of one. A mentor of mine, Dr. Alan Weiss, reminds those that he mentors to improve one percent every day. Taking that action would mean you are twice as good in about 70 days. This sounds simple, try it. You will find it takes effort, but the return on investing in yourself will keep you at the top of your game. Leading is all about you. What you expect of yourself matters most.

Carry yourself like a leader

The Marines teach their young officers that if they are at a grocery store on a Saturday afternoon, officers should be confused for being just that—an  officer. Whether you are at the office, grocery store or a fundraising event, will you be confused for being a leader? Being conscious of your appearance, how many drinks you have consumed, and how long you have lingered with one employee is extremely important for maintaining a leaders’ image.

Be aware that the small-minded male employee you supervise may think in these terms—The great looking very tight, very short cocktail dress will be equated to advertising for a date. The third glass of wine is obviously the mark of a drunk. Holding a conversation too long with one employee must mean there is an office romance going on.

Never let them see you sweat

In any organization, across all industries life happens. It is not conceivable to have a plan that meets every situation. It is possible to have crisis action procedures in place. The Marines are notoriously proud of their success record from humanitarian acts to combat. I can tell you from first-hand experience much of that success is owed to having processes in place to address the circumstances no one could have imagined. Never let anyone see you sweat; develop processes that you can rely on.

In summation

I have had the great pleasure of working with some of the finest leaders in the world. Many of whom are women. What I have spoken of are generalities. Like most generalities, they do not stand up as gospel truth in every case. I do stand by my advice. Being a leader regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender is not easy. It requires strength of character, a willingness to take on the responsibility to produce results and accountability for all that happens or fails to happen in your area of authority.

Take it seriously. Improve one percent a day. Never let them see you sweat.

Colonel John Boggs U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.) works with outstanding leaders to leverage talent in order to dramatically improve performance and rapidly exceed goals.