What does it take to be a good leader today? A recent study conducted by The Female Quotient and Deloitte found that 72% of respondents believe we need a new definition of what a “leader” is in today’s world. Here are the top traits to cultivate to be a better leader at work.

Do We Need A New Definition Of Successful Leadership?

Notebook with pink writing that reads "Make your own magic."
Both men and women have masculine and feminine qualities. We need both types of leadership for business success.

What does it take to be a good leader today? A recent study conducted by The Female Quotient and Deloitte found that 72% of respondents believe we need a new definition of what a “leader” is in today’s world. 

Moreover, traits traditionally considered feminine or “soft power” traits, such as being communicative, flexible and patient, came out on top. Also in the top five most important values for a good leader are the complementary, traditionally masculine (or “hard power”) traits of being hardworking and confident.

The power of feminine-style leadership was a common theme throughout the Girls’ Lounge at Cannes Lions 2018, where this research was released. “My ‘heartbeat moment’ was when I realized that I brought different qualities of leadership to the table,” said Shelley Zalis, CEO, The Female Quotient. “I was nurturing, empathetic, and passionate. These traditionally feminine strengths are what helped me be successful, allowing me to run my company like a family. I believe that emotion and passion belong in the boardroom.” 

Like Zalis, countless Girls’ Lounge panelists offered their own takes on feminine-style leadership over the course of four days on the Croisette, and ultimately three key components emerged: exercising empathy, empowering employees, and creating flexibility.  Here is why they’re important for success.

Exercising Empathy

Don’t Hide Your Strengths

Jia Hyun, LinkedIn’s Head of Marketing Solutions, North America, said, “Compassion is one of the leadership traits that I actually tried to hide early in my career, and realized later that it’s probably one of my greatest strengths. It’s the ability to see the world through somebody else’s lens and to truly understand someone else’s perspective in the way I think about hiring, recruiting, nurturing a business, or how I think about clients and their challenges.”

Show Understanding To Garner Support

Consciously exercising empathy has benefits for gaining more support for your projects and goals as well. Suzanne Kounkel, CMO of Deloitte Consulting, framed it this way: “I don’t have to agree with [all my employees’ decisions], but I have to understand the other person’s position and then adjust to be able to get my agenda through regardless of how ridiculous I think the other position is.”

Seek New Perspectives

And, ultimately, exhibiting empathy and curiosity in the workplace is something that all employees should make a common practice. As explained by Vita Harris, Chief Strategy Officer at FCB Global, “I think what’s even more dynamic [than simply listening] is proactively seeking people out and understanding a new fresh perspective. I say if you’re not learning something new every single day, you’re going to be obsolete really fast.”

Suzanne Kounkel, Deloitte Consulting, and Tara Walpert Levy, Google, at the Girls' Lounge at Cannes Lions
Suzanne Kounkel, Deloitte Consulting, and Tara Walpert Levy, Google, at the Girls’ Lounge at Cannes Lions

Empowering Your Team

Give Your Staff Room To Grow

In addition to empathy, the importance of empowering teams came up again and again. Joy Robins, CRO of Quartz, characterized this approach as being the key to her leadership style. “I think good leaders lead a company so that if they left tomorrow, the company would actually continue to run just as brilliantly as when they were there. And I’m extremely committed to the idea of giving your staff room, making them feel safe, and inspiring them to take chances even if they might fail.”

Set Clear Goals

Giving employees independence only works, though, if it’s paired with clear goals and expectations. As Marissa Aydlett, SVP Marketing, Braze, summed up, “I make sure that people are really clear on what we’re trying to do and then give them room to do it in their own way.”

Offer Actionable Feedback

Offering direct reports actionable feedback is another key component. As Heide Gardner, SVP, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, IPG explained, employees need to not only solicit feedback, but also have a clear “framework of objective criteria to get that feedback. So much of our industry I’m convinced runs on serotonin and relationships. And it’s not that we purposefully discount someone, but [managers tend to favor] the person who makes you feel that rush more…so you need to be very specific about what you want feedback on.”

Build A Sense Of Safety

She also echoed Robin’s emphasis on ensuring that employees feel safe. “On my team, we have a no assholes rule,” says Gardner. “…When I explain why, I reference Google’s study evaluating their highest-performing teams. They were trying to understand, is it personality types that you put into a room? Is it a balance of extroverts and introverts? What they actually found is that the thing that created the highest-performing teams was whether people felt safe. And if people feel safe, they’re more likely to offer more ideas, and the more ideas that are offered, the more likely you’re going to get to something that’s really great.”

“How Women Leaders Are Taking The Reins” panel at the Girls’ Lounge at Cannes Lions 2018.

Creating A Flexible Workplace

Practice Life-Stage Profiling

As a generation of workers increasingly expects jobs to offer more flexibility, female leaders are uniquely positioned to get ahead of this trend. Since women are often the ones who feel more pressure to balance family commitments with work, they tend to be better equipped to understand the benefits and logistics of a flexible workplace. Being a good leader is “about making sure that people are set up for success in their whole lives,” explains Nannette Lafond-Dufour, Chief Client Officer, McCann Worldgroup. “So you know what? If they can’t work afternoons, I have to trust that they’ll find a way to get the work done that corresponds with who they are and their lifestyle.”

Ask For What You Need

This openness to flexibility will benefit leaders in the years to come, as pointed out by Tara Walpert Levy, Vice President of Agency and Media Solutions, Google. “Whatever degree of flexibility that millennials want and expect, our organizations are not necessarily set up to accommodate, and a lot of those women don’t know how much power they have to get some of that flexibility either by asking or, in some cases, by taking,” she said. “There is an element of just being more proactive as leaders and really trying to understand the custom circumstances of our talent.”

As the elements of feminine leadership continue to come into focus more in the years ahead, the key next step will be female leaders getting more comfortable flexing this style in their offices and with their teams.