Coaching Conversations with Women Leaders – Chapter 1: The Relationship-based Mindset

Coaching Conversations with Women Leaders

First, an acknowledgement.  I fully recognize that there are vast differences in the backgrounds, geographical cultures, work experiences, and chemical/neurological make up of women leaders. In my view, a more accurate driver of effective leadership is the extent to which female leaders can integrate their masculine inner self (animus), and male leaders their feminine inner self (anima) into their leadership style.

The female qualities of anima include attributes such as feelings, emotions, tenderness, relatedness, commitment and fidelity, friendship, love and compassion, imagination, gentleness, creativity, intuition, and a sense of aesthetics. The male qualities of animus include assertiveness, courage, analytical thinking, strength, vitality, decisiveness, a focused attentiveness, and a desire for achievement1.  I believe that leaders who can leverage and balance these qualities will be more successful in leading 21st century organizations.

Additionally, as described by Geert Hofstede, one of the pioneers of intercultural differences, there are cultures/countries that are more masculine, and others that are more feminine. Masculine cultures’ values are competitiveness, assertiveness, materialism, ambition, and power, whereas feminine cultures place more value on relationships and quality of life. In masculine cultures, the differences between gender roles are more dramatic and less fluid than in feminine cultures where men and women have the same values emphasizing modesty and caring. Not surprisingly, Hofstede’s measurements show that the U.S. is one of the highest ranked countries/cultures in masculinity, as well as individualism (the reliance on self rather than the collective). According to Hofstede, these distinctions are a general construct (applicable to men and women).2

Never the less,  in my conversations with hundreds of women leaders, it is impossible not to notice the clear and important differences in the more natural and authentic leadership style of women leaders, and the frustrations they experience when a masculine culture dictates them how they should lead. Furthermore, over time, as more women have entered the labor force and ascended to higher positions, I have noted that their values and beliefs are no longer of the lone wolf variety. These views are clear, intense, and popular – especially with other women who wield significant power. It is therefore critical for 21st century organizations to not only be aware of these views, but also to cultivate and engage with them in positive and productive ways. Talented women who aspire to successful leadership roles have become aware of the organization’s reputation regarding their stance and commitment to incorporating the feminine mindset into the culture. Therefore, organizations that are slow to honor the feminine mindset will be left behind when competing for top women talent and will suffer the consequences.

Over the next few installments, I will share some of the views that consistently emerge in my conversations with women leaders, and the associated frustrations experienced when these views are repressed, blocked, or crushed.

Chapter One – The Relationship-based Mindset

Most women are socialized to weave a tapestry of meaningful and often longer-term relationships. This more collaborative orientation assumes a “win-win” outcome, where there is enough room to compromise, find a middle ground, and through the collective intelligence and effort of the team, make the pie bigger for everyone. This is contrasted with a mindset of bringing home the trophy through intense and merciless competition driven by an underlying assumption that there are fixed number of slices in a pie. Women who feel forced or enticed away (by rich compensation and perks) from their more natural and authentic relationship-based views into this competitive frame, report loss in motivation, passivity/gradual check out, addictive ways of obsessively throwing themselves exclusively into work to validate their sense of self-worth and choices, and many other negative symptoms.

The relationship-based leadership style is attentive to how things are done.  Short-term wins at the expense of leaving behind a battlefield of wounded souls and irreparable burned bridges is not an acceptable option. Fostering longer-term relationships is as important as the task at hand.  In fact, they may be more important as the value of these relationships transcend the here and now, and span over the leader’s career.

Here is an example of how being inattentive to the relationship-based leadership style can translate into lost business opportunities. There is a trend by some team development consultancies that advocate “courageous conversations”. This often is an exercise in which members of leadership teams are pushed to publicly declare their concerns and displeasure with one another. These conversations are timed to coincide with a preset timeline for team development, and not necessarily when the team has gone through its journey to achieve trust and camaraderie. The style of conversation is one of confrontation rather than collaboration. Importantly, care is not taken to ensure that these conversations and relationships land in a safe place before the team leaves the room and goes back to conducting its day-to-day work and interactions. Disruptive negative energy is routinely transferred into the work environment and the relationships of team members. Interestingly, we have noted that women leaders or international leaders from more feminine or collectivist cultures rarely engage in this type of activity for team development work or leadership coaching. Those that do, usually feel coerced to do so by their leaders.

What has been your experience with womens’ leadership styles?  Have you also noticed that on average, women leaders naturally prefer a more collaborative style which honors relationship building and creating win-win outcomes? What have been the levels of acceptance or push back by their organizations?  Why?


  1. Stevens A. On Jung. Princeton University Press; 1990.
  2. Hofstede G, Hofstede GJ, Minkov M. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill; 2010.

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

One Response to Coaching Conversations with Women Leaders – Chapter 1: The Relationship-based Mindset

  1. Bill Pullen says:

    Interesting blog post. I have often said that the world would be a better place if we had more women leaders – especially women who are balancing their feminine and masculine energies. Unfortunately many leaders, both men and women, embrace their masculine energy because that’s what they feel they need to do to survive – and in some cases do. The growing frontier for women and men leaders is to continue to embrace and acknowledge the power of and need for feminine energy in business and the world.

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