Women, Lead as You

Sheri Silk

At some point, every women leader I know has discovered that people have certain expectations—often very contradictory expectations—of how she ought to lead as a woman. And she typically discovers these expectations because she isn’t meeting them.

Too Much, or Not Enough

For example, I once participated in a planning meeting where a leadership team was discussing inviting a certain women speaker—a leader of a large movement and a skilled and respected Bible teacher—to come to an event. During that conversation, one of the ladies in the group said, “Oh, she yells too much from the pulpit.” That was all it took, apparently, to tip the scales away from considering this woman as our pick for that year.

I was shocked. I had heard hundreds of preachers over the years in church, most of them men. Many yelled or raised their voices to make a point. I had never heard anyone criticize them for yelling or for being loud. I haven’t to this day. Yet since that planning meeting, I have witnessed multiple occasions in which women leaders, many of whom are my heroes in the faith and people I’ve watched preach and lead from the pulpit, be accused of being too brash, stern, or loud because it’s not “feminine.”

In the world, I often see the opposite expectation for women—that being stern or harsh is necessary in leadership roles, especially ones with more power. The higher up the ladder a woman climbs, the more she is expected to lead aggressively and be tough, like a man.

For example, I distinctly remember the first time Hillary Clinton ran for president. She was doing a press conference and mentioned the pressure the campaign had been having on her family, specifically her daughter. She choked up a bit for a moment, then kept going. The next day, the news reporters eviscerated her for being weak and emotional.

Distracted by the Wrong Question

Encountering such a wide range of expectations causes many women to grapple with the question, “What does it look like for me to lead as a woman?” This question can easily start to hover over every decision we make, even those that seem inconsequential.

During my years on staff at Bethel Church, I served in a variety of leadership roles and eventually became supervisor to ten departments, most of which were managed by men. When I received this promotion, I moved into a new office, which I got to furnish and decorate. I remember walking around the furniture store looking for chairs that would fit into my new space. When I sat in one particular chair that had flowers in the upholstery, one of the first thoughts that came to mind was, I wonder how my male direct reports would feel sitting in this chair in my office? Would they feel uncomfortable sitting in a flowered chair? Would it be large enough for their frame? Was the chair too feminine?

My second thought was, Do men ever think about how a women would feel about the chairs they buy for their offices—or any other decision they make? Such silly thoughts!

Finally, I stopped this strange internal conversation and asked the Lord, “What do You think?”

Immediately, I heard, “I asked you to lead, not for you to ‘lead like a woman.’”

Aligning with Our True Leadership Focus and Goal

Pondering these words, I eventually came to realize a few things. First, leadership is not based on gender—it’s based on leading. It’s getting people where they need to go. The skills and acumen necessary to fulfill that job are not inherently gendered. God gifts and calls men and women alike to lead in various capacities and roles in every area of society.

The second thing I realized was that thinking too much about my gender could distract me, and therefore potentially derail me, from fulfilling the role of leadership.

Lastly, I realized that I needed to bring my whole self to my role as leader. Yes, I am a woman—that is one aspect of who I am, and it does affect the way I lead in certain ways. But along with my gender, I bring my unique story and experiences, personality, temperament, skill sets, knowledge, identity, relational connections, behavior style, dreams, calling, and vision to leading. I need all of them to lead as “me.”

The Lord’s words helped to clarify and direct my focus and goal as a leader. I was not to measure myself against other leaders, either male or female, or against social standards and definitions of femininity or masculinity. I was to discover how God had uniquely made and called me, Sheri, to lead a certain group of people. The questions I needed to be answering were, “Who are these people? Where do they need to go? What do I bring to the table to help them get there? How can I grow to offer them even more support, encouragement, training, and strength?”

Leveraging Gender Appropriately

In the course of answering these questions, I have studied gender and leadership in order to understand more about my own strengths and weaknesses and better train developing leaders. Men and women bring different, gender-related characteristics to the table, and it’s helpful to know about these and leverage them rather than trying to deny or ignore them—just as we ought to with all other aspects of who we are. For example, here are some of the positive and challenging characteristics that women typically display in leadership roles:

Positive Characteristics

  • Low ego

  • Relational

  • Patient

  • Creative

  • Good listeners

  • Great negotiators

  • See the steps along the way

  • Compassionate

Challenging characteristics

  • Too assertive or “pushy”

  • Not taken seriously

  • Tendency to avoid confrontation

  • Not believing in yourself and your vision

  • Negative self-talk

The value of any information like this lies in how we use it. Do we use it as a way to stereotype ourselves and others, stay in a box, and drive unhealthy insecurity in ourselves and tension on our teams? Or do we use it as another tool, among many others, for self-examination, learning, growth, mastery, and building respect and understanding with our people?

I believe every unique characteristic about us—including our gender—is designed by God to be a gift to ourselves and others. Our job is to cultivate and offer that gift so that people truly experience it as a gift.

So ladies, here is my encouragement to you. Find yourself and be yourself. Become a student and keep learning. Confidence is waiting to show up on the other side of fear, so push through. Don’t step back from a challenge—but don’t try to become someone else, including trying to be more like a “man,” to take it on. No woman during childbirth ever said, “I’m going to do this like a man.” Be compassionate, but don’t be co-dependent—fix things you have control over, and don’t take on other people’s problems. Use your brain, your experiences, and guidance from above to get the job done. Don’t manipulate. And last but not least: Keep your “sexy” at home.

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  1. This is really good stuff, thank you. I was about to share this with the ladies on our church staff team except the last line makes it’s inappropriate for me to do so as not all are married and it goes with the stereotype that you can’t lead as a woman if you aren’t married. Such a shame.

  2. This was really good. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience. I am almost finished reading Kris Vallotton’s book, Fashioned to Reign. What a beautiful compliment this article is to what I’m learning. Thank you!

  3. Excellent! I do not agree that the last line is creating or contributing to any stereotype or stigma that you ‘can’t lead as a woman if you aren’t married’. You’re just adding some very wise caution that should actually apply to ALL women in leadership – just as ALL men in leadership should NEVER be alone in a room with a woman – and these days, I’d say that ANYONE in leadership just shouldn’t ever be alone in a room with another person regardless of gender. Married, single, dating, engaged…leadership is about character and conduct that gives evidence to the character of Christ. There’s so much debate about whether leaders should be held to ‘higher standards’ and to me, the obvious answer is ‘Of course!’ If you want to be respected as a leader of others, you have to take responsibility for the lives of those you are choosing to lead. Rarely is anyone forced into leadership. The best advice (for me) in the entire article is in these two sentences: I believe every unique characteristic about us—including our gender—is designed by God to be a gift to ourselves and others. Our job is to cultivate and offer that gift so that people truly experience it as a gift. Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences.

  4. Great article, wonderfully written and insightful. Very helpful to me in a similar journey I’m going through in discovering who God has called me to be as a female leader.
    I read the last line as Sheri advising us to keep our “sexiness” where it belongs and not to use it to manipulate, or draw attention or validation to ourselves as leaders. I don’t think this means that single women should be disqualified from leadership. Perhaps it would be helpful if Sheri could clarify what she meant by this?

  5. Thank you Sheri! I would love to read more articles like this. I totally agree with you that we should leave sexy out of the office, married or unmarried. It’s not a good long term “card” to play. 🙂

  6. Excellent read! One of my main challenges is trying not to compare myself to others but God has designed me in a way that is special and unique. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Sheri, thanks for continuing to point us to our source-God! I am a former BSSM’r and I now serve on staff in a leadership position, in the accounting field, in the construction industry. Talk about a male dominated position. One day, after observing my interactions with our team, I was told that I "talk like a man" by a 55 y.o. white male exec.. (Which I think he meant as a compliment?) I am constantly aware and navigating my position, my influence, my strengths, my gifting, my language and my perception to find and present the authentic me. Thanks for addressing the fact that I have permission and an obligation to bring my ‘whole’ self, not just my skill set to the world.
    Thanks for leading and sharing!

  8. Oh my, just what I was asking the Lord to show me! We can get Revelation, Illumination, but Inspiration on how to communicate what God has given us.
    Thanks
    Kathy Sinclair

  9. Thank you Sheri. The words the Lord spoke to you “I asked you to lead, not lead like a woman” spoke to my heart. In a world (at least where I am) there is an expectation to lead in a certain way, if it’s not like they would do it it’s substandard. I continually find myself in the position of wondering if I’ll meet the expectation and find out by “not meeting it” as you said. You helped me to focus on my strengths. Confidence on the other side of fear…………..I like that.

  10. Why is it women tend to doubt themselves. I’m in management and the only thing that stops me from stepping up into a higher level is fear of failure and bringing correction and having people take offense to that correction.

  11. Great article, and just a quick response to the comments about the last line, firstly don’t disqualify a whole article because of one line, secondly I don’t think it’s related to being single or married it my interpretation is that you don’t have to flirt your way through leadership and manipulate people into following you it’s who you are that God wants you to lead from rather than what you can do including gaining favour from others with the use of flirting and flaunting your body this can happen by any female who is insecure in her role and not feeling supported by the men in leadership around her or following her

  12. Loved this Sheri!
    Thank you.
    Fear of failure is definately not confined to gender however I wonder if women take less risks than men in this area (leadership) because the consequences of failure for a woman can be higher? A woman in leadership can immediately find herself in the spotlight, being questioned and having to find answers for something a male counterpart may never even be noticed for.
    I feel like women in leadership roles need to know their content and be highly skilled in order to counteract these attacks. Be prepared and be courageous!

  13. Thank you. Sheri for this post. I love it. May many women read this and be encouraged to walk in the unique beauty and glory the Lord has placed in them.

  14. After reading this I just had a thought I wanted to share. I am a woman, and as you said, it is just "one aspect of who I am". The most important aspect of my identity is "Christ in me, the hope of glory." – Smiling

  15. Sheri, what a positive, encouraging and powerful voice you have added to this discussion. These truths resonate with HOLY SPIRIT wisdom. Well said!

  16. Thank you so much Sheri for this very timely word. Sheri you are an inspiration. Love to hear more from you about the area of women in leadership.

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