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Women Leading Men—On the Edges

A good friend and I were reminiscing about our time in active service to the nation. He is a retired Navy Captain, and I am retired Marine Colonel. After an exhausting journey through our days of daring-do, and the near misses of complete and utter disaster, we fondly began to recall some of our greatest commanding officers and, more importantly, what made them so formidable.

It was not the bravado as one might expect. It was not charisma and the “follow-me; charge that hill” attitude. It was the ability to work on the edges. The ability to guide you without making one feel unworthy. It was their ability to raise the provocative question, the question, which expands your ability to think and examine issues in a different light. It was their ability to care for you and grow your leadership skills without coddling you.

How did they do this? In short, they were direct with their communication style. Although they worked on the edges, they were direct, dead center in their ability to communicate. Interestingly we both noted that two of the greatest leaders we had in our professional lives were women. They were no different from their male counterparts. They worked on the edges giving their subordinates the opportunity to develop. They questioned provocatively and directly. They were masters at communicating.

I have noted that many women can, in a group seemingly speak all at once and somehow fully understand the conversation. Interestingly, I have also noted how many young women in leadership positions will work on the edges with their subordinates as good leaders will do. However, I have noted many of the same very promising female leaders communicate on the edges. I have witnessed this in the boardrooms and production floors.

I have witnessed talented female leaders in a boardroom environment, politely allow themselves to be cut-off while speaking and wait for their next turn to speak. I had witnessed promising young female junior executives refrain from asking the provocative question of subordinates when a serious error has occurred expecting that the subordinate learned from the experience. The reality is the next turn rarely happens, and many who have made serious mistakes do not learn from them.

This lack of direct, to the point, no nonsense talk is communicating on the edges. It is polite to a fault. It is being overly concerned that someone may have their feelings damaged beyond repair. It is the circular conversation where one hopes the message is received.

My advice to you young women aspiring to become exceptional leaders—master the art of communicating! Most subordinates, particularly men, respect a leader who communicates in a clear, understandable, direct and to the point fashion. In the military, there is a saying “if you cannot communicate, you cannot control. If you cannot control, you cannot command!” As a businessman, I can tell you with certainty the saying is just as relevant in business as it is in the military.

There is a lot of effort required to become an exceptional leader. Learning to work on the edges with subordinates and communicating in a manner that leaves no room for what you expect matters dramatically.

The difference between a well-run successful business and one that struggles to stay in business is the quality of its leadership. Exceptional leaders work the edges but communicate directly.