'I wonder if you're too nice'. When someone said this to Marjorie Kaplan, the group president of Animal Planet, Science and Velocity cable channels, it wasn't meant as a compliment. She recognised how freighted it was and why. As a woman in power, accusations of niceness can still incur dread, and have been known to send some women careening to the opposite, not-so-nice extreme.
Likeability is still a bit of a bugbear for women leaders. It's the so-called double bind. I've seen it affect the way some women interact with others - they may hold back and rein in a natural warmth for fear of it clashing with the powerful persona they have adopted. They may second guess themselves, and come across as fake. Yet niceness would seem to be a pre-requisite for leadership - you're hardly going to win hearts and minds by being vile.
Fortunately, our image leadership is changing. There's a fresh wave of thinking that takes Marjorie Kaplan's approach, rejecting the idea that you can be too nice. It not only tolerates niceness, it sees it as the X-factor for 21st century leadership. And women are in the vanguard, "setting a new standard for civility", as Time puts it.
Academic Jane Dutton has demonstrated the positive effects of compassion on organisational life, while "The Athena Doctrine" by John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio puts 'nice' leadership qualities such as patience and empathy on a par with tough-guy qualities such as decisiveness.
Niceness, kindness, compassion -- these are central components to "light touch leadership". As you might've guessed, this is the polar opposite to the heavy-handed style that has dominated the corridors of power for so long. It's more akin to 'servant leadership', because it rejects the heroic leader stereotype in favour of something more nuanced, collective and, dare I say it, feminine.
A group of us gathered for our last WiL breakfast to learn more about light-touch with veteran board member Lynne Berry. There was a palpable buzz in the room as we talked about a kind of power that is described in words such as 'grace', 'poise' and 'fortitude'.
Light-touch leaders possess a quiet confidence and are low on ego. They are good at bringing people along, creating a common purpose and most of all, fostering a sense of optimism. They recognise what really motivates people - the knowledge that they've made a contribution to something that matters.
What light touch leadership isn't is 'soft touch' leadership: 'Don't mistake my kindness for weakness' was how someone summed up the difference. Berry herself is proof of this. Almost every one of her roles (which take in voluntary organisations, the public sector and the UK's largest social enterprise, as well as academia) have been turnarounds, with all the difficulties these entail.
Being likeable doesn't mean being a pushover, or becoming over-emotional. You'll need all the usual qualities of a leader - strategic nous, sharp judgement, flexibility - but you'll also need to develop a readiness to grasp opportunities and resources as they arise.
Light-touch leaders are are good at forging unlikely alliances and turning problems on their head. At the Equal Opportunities Commission, Berry persuaded companies to see a problem (equal pay) as an opportunity, a classic demonstration of light touch, changing the way you describe your vision without compromising it.
It takes inner strength to lead without the limelight. But a lot of women have been doing this for years. This is the danger of light-touch leadership: it is often invisible and can go unrecognised, especially to those outside of your immediate circle.
We need to find a way to crack this, really thinking about the language we use to convey leadership. Words and story-telling are a powerful means of communicating your vision and ideas. But the lexicon of leadership tends to reflect a more aggressive, zero-sum model that leaves many women cold. Again, it's about turning things on their head. If 'predatory thinking' doesn't mean much to you, try replacing it with 'extraordinary thinking'.
The broader our vocabulary, the better: "It is more important than ever that we not see compassion, long-term thinking and social orientation as weaknesses," says Elizabeth Schaffer-Brown.
Light touch leadership isn't exclusive to women - and there are plenty of heavy-handed female bosses out there. But the reason that it resonates is that it offers a positive alternative to leading that capitalises on skills and traits many women already possess.
Seeing nice women (and men) succeed reminds us that we don't have to twist ourselves into something unfamiliar to achieve our goals. And as Berry says, "stroppiness is OK when you're leading with a light touch. Just choose your battles."