The other day, I ran across an article on Jessica Alba’s transition from Hollywood megastar to the “tough boss” and CEO of The Honest Company. The article describes her as having a straightforward demeanor, a goal-centric leadership style, and a willingness to employ the iron fist when necessary. Apparently, she has even made employees cry.
To be honest with you, I was a little baffled by this. Being straightforward and goal-centric is being tough? OK, maybe making someone cry is a bad sign, but I can’t help but wonder: Would a strong leadership style have warranted an article had the CEO in question been Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio?
In her recent book Executive Presence, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett uses several real-life examples to show how assertiveness is often more difficult for women to display than for men—and how a woman’s assertiveness is often misconstrued as being overly forceful. Hewlett concludes that “assertiveness in a woman often makes her unlikable (the B-word is rolled out . . .).”
In the same vein, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spends an entire chapter of her groundbreaking book, Lean In, describing the relationship between success and likability in the workplace. Owning one’s successes, taking credit for one’s accomplishments, and negotiating salary and employment terms are crucial for both men’s and women’s professional advancement. Yet Sandberg finds that women are much more likely to be labeled as “bossy” when they are decisive and outspoken and demand results, rather than being admired as a successful leader. As Sandberg points out, women are often expected to be “nurturing,” “nice,” or “communal” in their dealings with others; they risk being disliked when those traits are replaced with strength, boldness, and a confident, uncompromising demeanor.
SOMETIMES WOMEN JUST CAN’T WIN
During my ten-year career in marketing, I have seen this phenomenon unfold in one too many ways. Take, for example, my former leader—we’ll call her Alexis. A strong woman with a steely resolve, brutally honest with her immediate team yet with enviable political savvy outside it, she joined our organization to take over a role that had been vacant for a while. Alexis was fully aware of the boys’ club at the top of the organization, and she knew that her success (and ours as her team) would depend on both delivering outstanding results and being able to join and gracefully navigate the club.
During her time in the role, she completely revamped the way we “did marketing”—and pushed each one of us to leverage our strengths in new, innovative ways. Aside from being an inspiring and supportive leader, Alexis was also a tough boss. She set the bar high and expected her team to deliver, while demonstrating an unwavering confidence in her decisions and grace under fire.
But despite her efforts, she was unable to fully integrate into “the pack.” Behind closed doors, Alexis was spoken of as too aggressive; her poise misconstrued as coldness; her ability to give critical feedback criticized as not befitting of a team player. Eventually these perceptions that permeated the boys’ club spread to the top of the ladder and played a key role in Alexis leaving the organization.
The reality of her situation rings true for many women in the workforce. When it comes to being the boss, women are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Show too much of your soft side, and your leadership is brought into question; be tougher than the boys, and you may end up getting voted off the island.
WHAT’S A TOUGH WOMAN TO DO?
The reality is that our society’s expectation that women be “nice,” “pleasant,” and “communal” is not going away anytime soon. But neither is the need for toughness in top leadership roles. So how can women succeed where contradictions abound?
The answer, in my opinion, is somewhere in the middle.
The key to being a leader is knowing when and how to best deploy your leadership traits. As there is no universal recipe for negotiating “the tough” and “the soft,” every woman has to understand and adapt to her organization when finding the right balance; industries and particular company cultures always have to be navigated, woman or otherwise. Depending on what her organization is like, a woman leader may find it most appropriate to show her endurance when leading a reorganization, while showing compassion to those impacted by layoffs. Others might need to be tough in supporting an innovative project but show a softer “team player” side when rallying peer support for that project.
Some women find it difficult to be tough for fear of seeming “bossy” or worse. Others find it easy to get the tough part right but struggle with the soft. Still others get the soft part right as well yet fail to publicize it, worried that it would undermine their authority if news of their nurturing side got out. But, in certain situations it is critically important to publicly highlight one’s softer side. In the event of a layoff, for example, publicly showing concern, empathy, and consideration can be a display of strength, resilience, and an undeniable humanity—traits that are enviable in any leader, regardless of gender.
So, to all my female leaders out there: Embrace your many skills, be they soft, tough, or somewhere in the middle. Strive to gain the wisdom to use each as the situation dictates. But remember that at the end of the day, you can’t please everyone nor should you. So if you’re a bit of a tough boss, it’s OK; don’t let the man get you down.