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How Leadership Language Affects Women



My belief from both personal and professional experience is that women lead everywhere, often don’t recognise themselves as leading and don’t identify themselves as leaders. I tested this with a group of women recently.

I showed them a list of words commonly found wherever and whenever leadership is spoken or written about. I told them that often women don’t feel comfortable with these words. They don’t see themselves in them. Lots of nodding. These are the words:

  • Vision
  • SMART goals
  • Integrity
  • Standards
  • Influence
  • Assertiveness
  • Negotiation
  • Feedback
  • Shared understanding
  • Conflict resolution
  • Change management
  • Strategies and tools
  • Acknowledgement and praise

Some of these word such as negotiation, feedback, assertiveness and conflict management can be especially loaded for women. The meanings they make are often not relatable to self until we make new meanings of them.

Following this, I showed them pictures of women leading at home, in the community and at work. I found the pictures below by typing in clip art, from left to right, top to bottom: ‘women leading as mothers’, ‘women leading at work’, ‘women leading in religious communities’, ‘women leading in business’, ‘women leading as executives’ and ‘women leading in the community’. I was looking for empowering images to demonstrate our leadership. In fact what I found was a number of stereotypes that tell a different story.


This is a visual story. One that if women don’t recognise and don’t challenge, come to believe and to own. Pictures paint a thousand words and these images are in films, media and advertising as well as clipart. Couple this with the fact, that women don’t see themselves in leadership language and it becomes clear why women can find it hard to identify themselves and be identified by others as leaders.

After this somewhat deflating experience, I then asked the women to apply the words above, to the role of a mother. When we do this it is clear that women certainly do own and frequently and consistently apply these capabilities. My intention here is not of course to say that because mothers do this, fathers don’t, or that women who are not mothers do not do this. My intention is to add women to the leadership conversation using an example with which most of us will be are familiar in some way. To connect women with leadership in a context that is not traditionally seen as such. I’m sure you can think of many others.

The women worked through in their minds, that mothers have a vision for their children, they know what they want for them from the beginning and through their lives and they both set goals for their young children and help their older children set their own. They might not be formalised or written, but they are there. Mothers know the standard they want to reach as parents and strive for integrity and to meet these standards. Mothers are assertive with their children, they negotiate with and on behalf of them. They give their children feedback, resolve conflicts and help them manage change. They use an armoury of strategies and tools every day including acknowledgement and praise. They work with their children and influence, influence and influence.

All of this in a nutshell is a Person Centred way of leading: working with; enabling; caring. This is a way of leading that I think comes naturally to women and  at the same time is another reason that women don’t recognise that what they are doing as leadership. Also, because it is outside of the traditional leadership paradigm, neither often do others.

It’s time that women started to own and use leadership language in a way that is meaningful to them.  By doing this women can model leadership to the next generation of boy and girls. They can talk to children and young people about their leadership. They can demonstrate possibilities and a broader view of leadership by showing them where and how they lead. It’s time we added to the leadership conversation and built upon our capabilities from where we are rather than change to fit the expectations of the traditional leadership paradigm.

It’s time to change and build on  the leadership conversation, to recognise that women lead everywhere and that womens style of leadership is often different and that it is complementary.

For more information about Person Centred Leadership download 7 Tips for Being More Person Centred In Life, Work and Leadership


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