Women into Leadership: Stepping up to lead


Category: Leadership

March 20, 2020

“A leadership style is a tool, not personality trait.” - Daniel Goleman

Stepping up to leadership
Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

During the Hilda Matheson: Women into Leadership programme, the third topic we worked on was 'stepping up' to leadership.

Types of leaders, both good and bad

Our first exercise was to answer...'if you wanted to be the worst leader ever, what would you be doing?' We started to draw on past experiences and think of behaviours and words those leaders had said. We came up with:

  • Never listens

  • Takes credit for their teams work

  • Doesn't communicate

  • Demands a lot without supporting the team

  • Doesn't promote their team

  • Shouts

  • Gets angry

We then had to answer...if you were the best leader ever, what would you be doing? We came up with:

  • Listening

  • Being genuine

  • Taking responsibility

  • Open and honest

  • Empowering

  • Supportive

  • Trustworthy

  • Encouraging

  • Feeds back

  • Inspirational

What sets the great leaders apart from the rest?

Now we had explored what we thought good leadership is, we started to look at the research.

Based on the book by Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones, they asked 'Why should anyone be led by you?' to executives all over the world and talked to hundreds of their leaders and their followers within the business world and beyond, from CEOs of multinational corporations to teachers and nurses. What they learnt is that to be a leader you need: vision, purpose and energy.

The 4 things which set people apart are:

  1. Showing selective weakness, that lets people know they are human, approachable and builds trust.

  2. Relying on intuition to gauge appropriate timing and course of their actions. They can sense situations and can see what's going on around them without everything being spelled out for them.

  3. Managing with tough empathy, giving people what they need not what they want.

  4. Capitalising on their unique differences, maintaining their individuality whilst conforming enough.

So to be a great leader, you need to understand your differences, your strengths and your weaknesses and know how to adapt those qualities to context.

Level 5 leadership

Looking at more research, Jim Collins research asked what differentiates people from being a good employee to a good leader? And what does 'great' leadership look like? From his research he came up with the Level 5 leadership pyramid:

Level 5 - Level 5 Executive

Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.

Level 4 - Effective Leader

Catalyses commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision; stimulates the group to high performing standards.

Level 3 - Competent Manager

Organises people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives.

Level 2 - Contributing Team Member

Contributes to the achievement of group objectives; works effectively with others in a group setting.

Level 1 - Highly Capable Individual

Makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits.

Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of humility and will. They are incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organisation and it's purpose, not themselves. And while they can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet and reserved.

Most Level 5 leaders aren't the conventional larger than life saviours that are said to transform companies. They are seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results. And as much as they are about humility and modesty, equally what makes them great is their determination to do whatever needs to be done.

Some of the most visible examples of Level 5 leadership can be cited of great world leaders like M.K. Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, who always put their vision ahead of their egos. 

Styles of leadership

After we had explored the key components for leadership we began to explore how leadership can manifest in many different styles. And certain situations can suit different styles.


  • Aim: To mobilise people toward a vision.

  • Works best: When a clear direction or change is needed.

  • Impact: Most positive climate.

Example of use: When you’re at the start of a project and don’t exactly know what the end product will turn out like.


  • Aim: To develop people for the future.

  • Works best: When helping people and building long-term strength.

  • Impact: Positive climate.

Example of use: When someone needs help/guidance with something.


  • Aim: To create emotional bonds and harmony.

  • Works best: To heal rifts in teams or motivate people in stressful times.

  • Impact: Positive climate.

Example of use: If there are tensions rising near the end of a project, with deadlines looming.


  • Aim: To build consensus through participation.

  • Works best: To create consensus or get input.

  • Impact: Positive climate.

Example of use: When a decision will impact a whole team.


  • Aim: To expect excellence and self-direction.

  • Works best: To get quick results from a highly competent team.

  • Impact: Negative climate.

Example of use: When a project is need of results quickly from a group that is already highly motivated and competent.


  • Aim: To demand immediate compliance.

  • Works best: In crisis or with problematic people.

  • Impact: Negative climate.

Example of use: When a building is on fire and you need to get everyone out.

The most important aspect of this breakdown is that since each style fits a different situation, a good leader needs to be able to switch them when the context requires that. A leadership style is thus a tool, not personality trait.


“Authentic Leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead others with their hearts as well as their heads. They establish long-term meaningful relationships and have the self-discipline to get results.They know who they are.”

There is no cookie-cutter leader. Each individual has a unique combination of characteristics, skills, traits and styles which leads to their success. So being comfortable in your own skin, and authentic, can help you lead. As women in leadership, we may face barriers to leadership, however being ourselves and staying true to our values can push us through those barriers as these qualities are what teams of people need.

Authentic leaders tend to:

  • Demonstrate behaviours which enable you to trust them.

  • Take ownership when they have made a mistake and share responsibility for any mistake.

  • Show the necessary courage to question current status quo if defend their people or processes.

Examples of authentic leaders include: Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King and Susan Cain.

Why should anyone be led by you?

The final exercise of the day was to articulate and present our leadership style and how it (should/could) manifest in our team. Based on what we had learnt about ourselves and what makes great leaders, we had to tell the rest of the group why anyone should be led by us. This is a great exercise to do as it helps you start to reflect on you as a leader now and where you want to get to. Think about:

  • Authenticity

  • Styles

  • Levels

  • If you were going into a new organisation/team

  • Your first key engagement with your team you need to say

  • What do you stand for

  • What can people expect from you

  • What do you expect from people

  • How close are you to this?

  • What do you need to do to get yourself there?

Ask yourself these questions, maybe visualise your answers on paper and remind yourself of who you are as a leader and what you stand for. As we learnt, being yourself, being human and being determined to do your best however they manifest can help you to become a great leader.


  • To be a leader you need: vision, purpose and energy.

  • Level 5 leaders are extremely successful and they display a powerful mixture of humility and will.

  • There are many different styles of leadership and they are most effective in certain situations.

  • Being authentic is a powerful attribute to have as a leader.

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