Leadership Paradigm Shift: “Softness”, and Why We Need More of It

What stands out to you about the leaders you admire? Is it their ability to inspire action, or perhaps, the unique way they wield influence? Have you ever considered whether the leadership styles of the men and women you look up to fundamentally differ or if they’re tapping into a universal set of principles?

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Barbara Krylova, a student at Vienna University, where she’s delving into Soft Power and Female Leadership for her thesis. Barbara’s research proposes a transformative leadership model, one that capitalizes on the inherent strengths of female leaders.

Our discussion began with an attempt to define “softness” in leadership, exploring how it intertwines with strength to create a compelling formula for leadership. Here’s what came up.

How we define softness

Barbara:

In one of your videos, you said that women are sorely missed in leadership and that the world really needs women leaders. I believe there’s a characteristic women have that could be used to redefine leadership. For example, Jacinda Ardern and her incredible way of handling such a crisis with her baby in her arms, a kind of leveling down with the people and saying ‘Okay, I’m a leader, but I’m here for you, I understand you and I’m ready to help.’ 

I had a conversation recently with the founders of Girls in Global, a support organization for women in foreign affairs. They talked about how they face sexism and rejection at every corner of foreign affairs because softness is seen as a weakness in women.

Rebecca:

Yeah, well, I think it’s interesting. I mean, even you said it in air quotes, ‘softness’, right. It comes off as a bad word. ‘Oh, don’t be too soft.’ There’s nothing about softness that sounds desirable in a business context. You don’t want to be soft in negotiations, you don’t want to be soft in your sales. It just doesn’t compute. So I think when we talk about leadership, we talk about soft power. I think it’s challenging because ‘softness’, what does that even mean? I think yes, softness can be seen as a weakness if you’re talking about caving in when other people have stronger opinions than you do. That’s also softness. So I think that terminology is troublesome to begin with. 

Strength + Softness = Leadership

Rebecca:

What I’ve noticed with women in leadership roles, or just women in my life, my friends, women I admire, all of these women that I’ve interviewed for the blog, I like to say that they’re “women of note”, which just means I admire them. I can’t even really put my finger on it, but I know I want to talk to them about their way of being in the world. And what’s consistent for me about all these women is that there is a strength, together with a softness. So the softness is never on its own. It’s paired with this incredible strength. 

I have a lot of people who tell me, for example, ‘Oh, Rebecca, you’re so strong, and you’re so feminine at the same time’, and it’s almost like they say that as if they’re surprised, how could that be true? I mean, it’s not like I wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to be strong and feminine today’, it’s just the way I am. But what I’ve seen is when women struggle to, for example, get into leadership roles, or get promoted or, you know, whatever they’re trying to do to advance their career, I often see that they over index on the hard leadership. 

And then often what happens is that femininity—we’ll call it softness for now, because we don’t know what else to call it, gets pushed aside, because we’ve been sold kind of a shitty story. Like, ‘We need to be strong’, or ‘We need to be really aggressive or masculine’, or, you know, whatever. And it’s no wonder because men have been in power since the beginning of time—well, not since the beginning of time, but for a long time. And so women have seen them as role models. And so then they are like, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to be like him and take on those characteristics, because that’s how I can get ahead, or that’s how I can get into this leadership role, or that’s the way leadership is done. 

The women I’ve interviewed, again, this common thread is that they have a fierceness to them—and this softness. It’s a combo, it’s never just one or the other. It has to be both. 

This quality that you’re talking about that’s missing from leadership—it could be anybody, man, woman, non-binary person, what are the qualities that make a leader, a good leader? You know, I’m biased about communication skills because that’s my wheelhouse. But what I see all the time is that women are generally better communicators than men. I don’t know what the statistics are, but I’m sure we could find a million statistics that prove this to be true (We did some research and have shared it below). And one of the reasons why is that we’re better listeners. We understand how to show more empathy. We understand how to involve everyone in the conversation, and that, to me, is this foundational strength. Because you’re not relying on force to persuade people to get people to do things, you’re bringing them into the conversation so they feel agency. Then they are involved in the project or whatever you’re trying to do. That’s when people get excited about their work. That’s when people feel inspired and motivated. They don’t feel inspired and motivated by a dictator saying, ‘You need to do this!’

Some research on communication skills by gender

Women are generally found to excel in nonverbal communication, displaying greater accuracy at reading nonverbal cues like eye contact, smiling, and direct body orientation, which are key in creating psychological closeness. They also tend to use more non-verbally immediate behaviors than men, such as maintaining more eye contact and smiling more during interactions.​ —National Communication Association

Women are found to have more connections between the brain’s hemispheres and more neurons in areas devoted to emotions and memory, which might contribute to their heightened ability to perceive and process language, as well as to observe emotions in others​. —National Library of Medicine

Our studies have shown that people tend to associate abstract language with power and leadership. Women tend to use more concrete language, focusing on specifics and providing details that are easier to visualize, which could be attributed to social interaction patterns that emphasize closeness and rapport-building in smaller groups. In general, men tend to speak more abstractly than women—meaning that in some contexts, the way women are socialized to communicate may sometimes make them less likely to be seen as leaders.—Harvard Business Review

Watch the full interview with Barbara Krylova here.

Who are the women of note in your life? How do you notice them dance between strength and softness?

——————————————————

👋 P.S. When you’re ready for more…

↘️ Get my Story Map Guide and use it to become a Master Storyteller so you can influence, persuade, and inspire.

❤️ Follow me on Instagram 

👋Connect with me on Linkedin.