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Role Model Rebels: The Women Rewriting the Rules of Leadership

10/02/2014 10:36 GMT | Updated 09/04/2014 10:59 BST

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Sometimes it can feel as if women take two step forwards and one step on the path to leadership. But there's a groundshift taking place. I see it in the groups I work with, in the young women I coach. They want to change things. They are fed up with having to work within unnatural constraints, and they are pushing back. Preconceptions about what women are 'allowed' to ask for are ebbing away.

We used to pay lip-service to gender equality at work. Now, it is a topic regularly addressed -- in the Davies report, by women in power, and (ironically) at Davos.

All the things we used to brush under the carpet -- equal pay, motherhood, perfectionism, stereotyping, boardroom inequality -- are openly discussed. Simply talking about them has made these subjects less taboo and more difficult to ignore.

We're by no means there yet -- it feels a lot like the sustainability agenda 18 years ago -- but there's movement. And it's coming just in time.

Where's the leadership?

We need some diversity of leadership. I don't just mean ethnic and gender diversity, but diversity in the way we tackle today's challenges.

We're facing a future of dwindling natural resources, of social upheaval and political unrest. Rapid advances in technology, always-on connectivity, demographic shifts -- these are re-shaping the way we live and work and colouring the expectations of the next generation of leaders.

Our trust in government is faltering just as complexity is growing. We're starting to question everything (no bad thing) including the kind of leaders we want (to be) in this environment.

Men are as caught up with these issues as women, but I believe women are beginning to find their power here.

An alternative path to power

Take the senior financial-services manager with whom I've been working. While the majority of her peers rule with foul language and fear, she sets a different mood altogether. She doesn't tolerate rudeness or bad behaviour. She promotes a workplace where contributions are recognised, where individuals are encouraged to find their own way as leaders. I quickly noticed how 'present' she is: she genuinely listens, and that's incredibly fulfilling for people.

She respects and trusts people, but she also holds them to account. She expects them to keep their promises, or come up with a counter-offer. If someone fails to perform, she doesn't duck it, but addresses it professionally. This is leading by example, walking your talk.

As odd as her leadership is in the context of her organisation, people clamour to work with her. She started out with 50 people. She now leads around 1,000. She hasn't had to wrest power from anyone. She's been given it by those who work for her.

The Generative Leader

Whether she's aware of it or not, this woman has many of the traits of the "Generative Leader" -- listening, being present, taking responsibility for the organisation's mood, standing up for her principles, building teams and networks.

I've seen those traits in other powerful women, so maybe they play to our strengths. Here's what I mean:

'We' not 'me': generative leaders emphasise respect, collaboration and individual contributions to a bigger goal. They are good at reconciling opposing sides and negotiating with multiple stakeholders. These are areas where women excel, according to studies. They are also considered the hallmarks of great leaders.

Enable others to bring out their 'best selves': Eventbrite founder Julia Hartz (pictured above right) spends time asking 'Britelings' (employees) what kind of company they are building together: "I ask every single person: 'how do we get ourselves where we say that was our best work, without making compromises'," she says.

Interpret their world: This means seeing the big picture and scaning the horizon for new possibilities, like Jude Kelly (pictured above left), whose 'Being a Man' festival looked beyond her world (and her personal experience) and tapped into the broader trend among men to question old notions of masculinity. Arianna Huffington (pictured middle) created a 'Third Metric' to re-define our criteria for success.

Build networks of alliance and help: We'll all get further if we support each other. Jasmine Tsai's 'Women Helping Each Other' initiative at Change.org is a great example, and proves that you don't need to be the boss to lead.

We need this kind of leadership, people who are neither swayed by the latest fad nor so intractible that they can't listen to opposition.

But it's not always easy. If, like many senior women, you are in the minority, you may feel pressured to go against your principles.

You'll have to contend with events and circumstances beyond your control. It's a matter of making conscious choices -- and possibly, tradeoffs. It may also mean dealing with opposition and dissent. Remember, at work at least, that it's not an attack, but someone else's point of view. We may not like it, but it helps to be adept at politicking to build 'followership.'

Making good judgements -- learning to lead -- is a lifelong process. But there's no better time to step into your power. Don't worry about being different. That's how you'll stand out.

Photos: Jude Kelly (left) by Andy Miah, CC2.0; Arianna Huffington (middle) by Rappaport Center, CC.20; Julia Hartz by Randy Stewart, CC2.0