I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the art and science of leadership, specifically related to the work I do with female leaders on creating more influence, interest and impact. I love to learn and am continually reading, researching and watching TED talks and other videos from various coaches, academics and psychologists. This isn’t a new topic for me, but one I’ve recently started questioning in terms of the lens through which we view, assess and evaluate leadership qualities.

Recently Naomi Wolf, author of “The Beauty Myth”, urged young women to give up ‘vocal fry’, ‘uptalk’ and ‘run-on sentences’ and reclaim their strong feminine voices. She asserted that women were being seen as less capable, less educated and less confident because of their tendencies to these trends and offered research to back up her claims. In essence, she was encouraging women to speak more assertively, with a declarative tone instead of the interrogative tone. Sounds like a good thing, but as more than one response to her article pointed out, women are starting to question why they are being disregarded as intelligent and competent contributors to discussions simply because of their communication style.

The assertive tone, or what we perceive as authoritative, is rooted in adopting what has historically been a more masculine mode of communication. Unfortunately, this idea of what is assertive or authoritative isn’t limited to vocal tone. Many of the qualities we consider valuable in a leader (concise and direct communication, quick decision making ability and firm body language) are primarily derived from how men lead. Even the research on perception of credibility is skewed to this male perspective.

Personally, I am aware that I have benefited as a leader where leadership has been shaped by what men do, because I happen to be genetically blessed with a lower pitched voice and a fair amount of volume.  I am also aware I have coached women to modify their communication style to prepare for advancing as a leader. Sadly, it’s the same old fine line we’ve been treading for decades: be assertive, but not aggressive; be feminine, but not sexy; be this, but not that. It’s a very long list of things to change, fraught with judgement, that can make or break our leadership potential, at least as it’s currently measured.

Being part of a non-dominant group adjusting to the style of the dominant group is not a new concept and has often been a key part of advancement, or even survival. Certainly we wouldn’t have the number of women we have in leadership now without the women in the vanguard having made those adjustments. However, as the balance of power gradually shifts to a more equal representation, I wonder where our responsibility lies in coaching women or appearing as leaders ourselves and I’d love for you to join the discussion – what do you think? Do we keep coaching women to be more ‘assertive’ or do we start trying harder to listen for the content of the message and less to the way it’s delivered?