THE BLOG

What Makes a Woman 'Leadership Material'?

13/08/2014 15:06 BST | Updated 12/10/2014 10:59 BST

2014-08-13-MM2.jpg

For author Sylvia-Ann Hewlett, she has to have 'executive presence', a "dynamic mix of appearance, communication and gravitas" that is conveyed through the way she carries herself, her speech and her appearance.

The implication is that no matter how spectacular your achievements, if you're missing that X-factor, you're not going to make it as a leader. (This is not good news for women, since that X-factor tends to be determined from a distinctly XY set of precedents.)

For Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, presence means showing some "human-ness", using your intuition, showing "tough empathy" and genuinely caring about what you're doing and the people around you.

In Generational Leadership, it involves being 'present' -- "listening, building connection, blending with others and enabling shared commitments. We can't produce trust, ownership or authentic commitment (rather than compliance) without connection, which is shaped by our presence," write Liz Austin, Scott Blessing and Sylvana Caloni.

I think this gets closest to defining leadership presence, because no matter how good a front you put up, if you're not present, it will start to show up in the way you speak (or not) and in your body language. You'll seem 'off' in some way.

As UCLA's Dr Albert Mehrabian discovered, you convey far more in the way words are said (38 per cent) and your facial expression (55 per cent) than through the words themselves.

But this is most important when words and other behaviour are incongruent -- because it's the non-verbal stuff that people are more apt to notice.

Finding your voice

So while cutting out the unnecessary apologies and being aware of how language and tone will affect your presence, it's more important to get comfortable with your own voice. (Although this advice from blogger Soraya Chemaly is worth keeping in mind.)

Laure Blanchard-Brunac, a banker at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, says simply: 'Find your voice when you're young. The younger you are when starting to speak up, attend board meetings, senior official gatherings where women are under-represented, the better it is."

Staying centred

Then there's what is not being said. "All of our non-verbal behaviours - the gestures we make, the way we sit, how fast or how loud we talk, how close we stand, how much eye contact we make - send strong messages," says Jeanne Segel Ph.D.

"Our talk (intentions, beliefs and creeds) and walk (our actions and behaviours) should be consistent. When they are not, those who look to leaders become confused."

I saw this myself when I worked with a successful senior woman in a male-dominated industry. She was outwardly poised and gracious, but her success had come at a personal cost: inwardly, she was exhausted, wracked with doubt and fear about how to put herself forward for the board.

Her tension was beginning to show in the set of her jaw and in her shoulders. Doubt was draining her of her own sense of presence, making it nearly impossible for her to articulate what she wanted. So to address her fears meant addressing her physical blocks (using CFEEB or Center/Face/Extend/Enter/Blend, an exercise with its origins in martial arts) as well as her mental ones. That centred her and made it possible for her to step into the future she wanted for herself.

Being real

There are things you cannot control. Women are often subject to 'special scrutiny' when it comes to outward appearances . I've written myself about how often women are judged on what they wear.

One anonymous entrepreneur recently wrote about clothing as "a tool to defuse gender, a strategy for gaining access to an almost exclusively male professional environment". She referred to it as "taking on the third gender".

Unconscious bias can cloud how they are perceived, their leadership style is given personality attributes that male peers are less likely to be saddled with, and studies of transformational leadership show how preconceptions about what's fitting behaviour for a woman puts female leaders in a double bind.

How you're described, too, can send subtle cues that say 'not leadership material' -- words reserved specially for women such as 'catty', pushy, or Sheryl Sandberg's least favourite, bossy. These can be subtly undermining, while 'gravitas', even if used by Hewlett, reads as 'silver haired white male' for many.

This means the 'leadership material' goalposts tend to keep moving -- and probably will until we see a more diverse group at the top.

Being self-aware, walking your talk and 'talking your walk, will all help to convey your leadership cred to others, but there's no single prescription for presence, even within the status quo. Real presence has to come from within and to feel genuine.

I'm reminded of a story about an female government official I heard via Catalyst's Allyson Zimmerman.

This woman, who must remain anonymous, underwent a rigorous selection process for a high-profile role in public office. She was the sole woman being considered. Feedback from her interview was that she smiled too much, her handshake was too weak, and her presentation skills were too 'girl-like'.

She got the job.

(Photo of Marissa Mayer: Don Feria for Fortune Live Media, CC2.0)