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I used to believe that in order to be seen as a leader, a woman must be bold and aggressive, always ready to get her point across. I was of the school of thought that said to assert her power, a woman leader must put on a tough exterior to show that she’s mastered the hard skills of business and strategy.

As Karrine Steffans, author of The Gorgeous Girl’s Guide said, “It is often and wrongly thought that the only way for a woman to get what she wants out of life is to fight for it, to show her teeth, and kick up dust.”

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The Leadership Toolbox

The dance between being aggressive and being assertive is a delicate one that requires balance, style and of course, wisdom. “You don’t have to fight to be strong. You can be compassionate and kind. You don’t have to yell,” says the author of Deliberate Receiving, Melody Fletcher, “You can move mountains with soft words.”

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Mary Fontaine, Global Managing Director of Key Client Accounts at Hay Group, Inc. said that “outstanding women used a better blend of what we think of as traditional masculine styles—being directive, authoritative, and leading by example and as well as feminine ones.”

Successful women on top of their games have learned to excel in those characteristics usually attributed to male leaders. Fontaine says that these women “also knew when to be more nurturing, inclusive, and collaborative.” Incorporating all of these traits—including the soft ones—into their leadership toolbox gives women leaders an obvious advantage in the business world. Honing these skills helps women to become more valuable assets to their organizations.

With mastery over “quiet strength” as Fletcher calls it, women can be more effective in their leadership “than any drill sergeant.

Active Negotiating

But time and age have taught me that developing other soft skills, like listening–well, active listening–are of equal importance to a woman’s leadership identity. Integrating the art of active listening into our skill set shows a wisdom that can ultimately drive the advancement of our careers. Active listening is more than an empty business buzzword, and, as per its description, it’s not a passive activity either.

Active listening is a proactive, intentional, disciplined approach to getting what you want in a negotiation. A good active listener pays attention to a person’s tone, facial expressions, and subtle gestures to identify any significant conflicts between their words and nonverbal messages. The body language a person displays can provide deep insight into the motives and intent behind what they are saying. Nonverbal messages can be as important, and sometimes more important, than verbal ones.

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But wait…there’s more involved than deciphering the other person’s spoken and unspoken words. Your own communication—your words and your actions—should demonstrate a sincere interest in what’s being said and a respect for the person delivering the message. We all know that we should put away our phones and make eye contact when someone is speaking to us. But we can also ask them open-ended questions to draw out their true feelings on a subject like, “How would your perfect scenario look?”

The use of affirmative comments like, “I see” or “exactly” show that they have your attention, and signals them to continue. The more your soft skills like active listening improve, the stronger negotiator you will become. And, strong negotiation is a pretty powerful tool.

Disclaimer: Not Demure Doormats

Practicing soft skills doesn’t mean being soft. It doesn’t mean that we become doormats for anyone. This is not about being demure. It does not mean contorting ourselves to fit into archaic male-centric concepts of what it is to be a woman.

And, we definitely don’t have to grin and bear it if a rich, powerful “man” (quotation marks added for obvious reasons) decides to objectify us. It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to give a silent nod to men who diminish women with any type of degrading “locker room” banter that amounts to bragging about sexual assault.

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Heart-led Leadership

Active listening is a graceful style of communication; you listen intently to a person, wait for them to finish speaking, ask confirming questions, and then paraphrase what you think you’ve heard. Instead of steamrolling over people to get your point across, active listening shows that you are empathetic to the thoughts and feelings of others, which builds trust and sets everyone at ease.

The wise woman uses this style of communication to demonstrate humility, compassion, and to show that she is a heart-led leader.

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The soft skill of active listening is a strong power play, because it prevents wasted time and money caused by unnecessary misunderstandings. This powerful tool enhances performance and improves the work environment, because your co-workers feel valued and appreciated. It shows that you genuinely care about your co-workers; this is heart-led leadership. Leaders who practice active listening will find themselves with a host of loyal supporters willing to go the extra mile for them.

Life has taught me that we, as women leaders, don’t need to walk around in full armor, like we’re ready for battle. Wise women understand that real power comes from within…an inner strength of character. They know all about the power of soft, and they’re not afraid to use it.

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