How to Bring Out the Remarkable Leader Within

Grace Meets Grit

Recently, I asked a few people to share words that come immediately to mind when I ask about men and women in leadership positions:

  • Salary inequity
  • Unequal representation
  • Misunderstanding
  • Testosterone
  • Powerful when the best of both are valued
  • Need for a level playing field
  • Minefield
  • Different
  • Mars and Venus
  • Unfair

There are many misunderstandings when we talk about men and women in leadership.



Daina Middleton takes on the topic in her new book, Grace Meets Grit: How to Bring Out the Remarkable, Courageous Leader Within. In her book, she demonstrates the inherent value of both feminine and masculine leadership styles and how all of us can benefit from an understanding of the value of the different strengths of the sexes. Daina’s experience includes over three decades of business leadership experience in a male-dominated industry. She shares her firsthand observations and stories to help everyone become more effective at leading others. Daina is also an advocate for a more inclusive and practical approach to working together.

I had the opportunity to ask her more about her work.



Why Gender Bias Training Falls Short

What’s wrong or missing from the ongoing discussion of gender in the workplace? Why is current gender bias training falling short?

The good news is the gender equality conversation is actually happening.  In fact, Google Trends indicates gender equality has actually increased over the past decade.  And the equality discussion certainly must continue because the pay parity gap remains large despite the focus on equality. However, a focus on equality is insufficient because equal literally means the same. While their contributions are equally valuable, men and women bring different behaviors to leadership and this is a very good thing. Women are often measured against male leadership behaviors – mostly because men are still largely in charge.  The result is unfortunate because there are many benefits to both the male “Grit” style of leadership as well as the more relationship “Grace” approach.  Obviously, I am over generalizing to make a point.  Most of us have both male and female qualities, and the best leaders strive to cultivate both within themselves as well as within their organizations.



We All Have Grace and Grit Within Us

Grace and grit. Would you give us a little background on each and how they fit into your model? Do you find that naming grace and grit causes a backlash at all in terms of stereotyping?

A person’s leadership style is based on his or her communications style.  Women tend to use communications to establish intimacy and build and maintain relationships. This is what I refer to as the Grace style of leadership. Men (the Grit style), on the other hand, tend to use communications to drive immediate, tangible outcomes, preserve status, and avoid failure.

The male leadership style is an exclusive club, even though it’s often not intentionally exclusive. And, while both women and men bring equal value to the workplace, equal does not mean they are the same. Many times, these differences cause misunderstandings in the workplace at best. At worst, I have actually seen a great leader lose her job because her boss, who was a man, thought she didn’t know how to make decisions because the way she approached decision-making was different from his own.  This is what first sent me down the path to beginning a new gender dialogue that allows us to have meaningful conversations about how women lead differently than men. Only then will we understand the value both bring to the workplace.

As I mentioned above, calling Grace the more relationship-focused female style and Grit the status-conscious, immediate action male style of leadership provides us with a non-confrontational approach to talk about our differences. Bias training is largely focused on helping men understand what it’s like to be a woman. Do you think men will remember this in the heat of a challenging business situation? Probably not. And in fact, all the research shows bias training has largely been ineffective in changing behaviors in the workplace for exactly this reason.  We all have both Grace and Grit within us.  I, for instance, have a more Grit style approach, which at times can be abrasive.  My team recently reminded me of this by asking if I had left Grace at home that day.  Their question prompted me to think about my behaviors and adapt them for the situation.  All great leaders have good awareness of their own style and the needs of others and have the ability to have productive dialogue around them.



What’s the traditional leadership style in the workplace? How is this changing?

Historically, the traditional leadership style was more transactional – meaning literally quid pro quo.  It’s a management approach that worked well for the industrial age – a simple value exchange where a manager clearly articulated what an employee needed to do, and the employee clearly understood what they would get in return.  However, the transactional approach is not so effective for leading knowledge workers, which is why transformational leadership, while not a new concept, is becoming more popular.  Companies recognize the competitive advantage to inspiring the hearts and minds of a talented workforce.  Transformational leaders inspire others by building strong relationships with their employees, empowering them, and investing in them, for the good of them personally as well as the entire organization. While both men and women can excel at transformational leadership; numerous studies have shown that women naturally lead using the transformational style.  Furthermore, women who use the transformational leadership approach have greater success excelling in their own careers.



You’ve achieved success in male-dominated industries. Talk about some of the challenges women face.

I didn’t recognize the challenges in the beginning. I loved tech because it was constantly changing – I never was in the same job for more than about 18 months. I was good at what I did and seemed to excel. This is often the case for most women who find that they tend to work well in the early years.  This isn’t surprising given that women outnumber men when they are starting out their careers since 52% of the workforce are women. But, when I first became a manager, things changed for me. I know now that I am not alone, and the challenges are often most acute as women reach a leadership position when the majority of their peers are male and they are often reporting to a man.  Statistically, we know the number of women holding leadership positions steadily declines from 37% at the first level manager to just 3% for the most senior leadership positions.grace-meets-grit_cover-image

When I first moved into that management position, I felt as though everything changed.  All of the things that made me successful earlier in my career didn’t seem to work.  And these weren’t big misses – but subtle things – missed cues or slight misunderstandings.  My male peers and manager seemed to speak an easy language that I just didn’t understand.  I had a very supportive manager who really wanted to help me to succeed. And while he recognized I was missing the mark, he couldn’t really pinpoint why or how. They weren’t serious enough offences to cause me to be dismissed.  I stumbled through, but the experience dented my self-confidence. I questioned my decision to move into management, and I really thought that I was the problem.  I didn’t understand until years later how many other women had gone through a similar experience to my own and that the problem wasn’t me.  What I know today is that any form of diversity is uncomfortable.  We tend to hire people like ourselves because it’s comfortable and easier. Diverse teams (of any type, not just gender or race, or age – but even leadership style) are unquestionably better – all the research has proven this – but it doesn’t mean the team members find it to be easier. Today, I spend my career working with leaders to embrace differences – of all types – not just gender.  All teams have conflict. The best teams know how to work through it, and understanding our differences is always the first step to building the skills for teams to excel through all challenges.


Get Comfortable With Grit Behaviors

Do you believe that there are unique behaviors women must embrace to get promoted?

I don’t believe there are unique behaviors.  I do believe that women need to get comfortable with Grit behaviors, such as confidence and power, because statistically they are going into a Grit environment.  In the workshops I do with women, it is clear there is a journey of understanding that needs to occur, especially with these two behaviors. To empower others, leaders must retain their own power and demonstrate confidence – even if they don’t feel it. They also need to understand that decision-making is the most biased leadership behavior of all, and that their approach to decision-making is really beneficial, but it can also be misunderstood, especially if their boss is a man.  There are ways to be an inclusive decision-maker, which is often better for the organization, as well as meet the immediate action standards driven by Grit leaders. Finally, women must focus on maintaining personal resilience. We tend to give all of ourselves away, and good leaders must nourish themselves in order to keep giving to others.



Let’s move to just one characteristic you focus on: confidence. How do men and women differ in confidence? How does this impact their performance?

Women tend to believe that competence is more important than confidence.  It’s really crucial for them to understand that confidence is far more important. Confidence is all about a physical demonstration – there’s no way to really tell if someone is truly confident except the signals they send to others.  Research shows that speaking slowly, assuredly and taking up physical space demonstrate confidence.  Because women tend to focus on the relationship, they may defer causing them to not speak up or behave decisively. While this may be good for an equal relationship, it likely will not send a message that she is confident – particularly if she is working with all men.  Confidence becomes vitally important.  I find that nine times out of 10 she is focusing on being the best she can be far more often than working on confidence. In workshops, I focus on creating a personal touchstone for them to recall when they feel their confidence slipping.  For me personally, that touchstone is calming a panicked horse.  I am a horse person. It turns out that speaking slowly, assuredly in a calm voice, blowing air out of my lungs so to take space in the saddle and relaxing works great to calm a horse.  It also physically demonstrates confidence. So I use the same behaviors when I feel my own confidence slipping. With practice, confidence can become comfortable and repeatable.



How have men responded to your research?

I first introduced the Grace Meets Grit concept at South by Southwest at an event called the Geek Fest.  As one would imagine, this was a very male venue.  When I first sat down I counted exactly four women in the room, including me.  There were nearly 100 men.  The presentation before mine was titled “What’s New at Apache.”  I literally had a confidence crises moment where I thought I had made a big mistake. But, I went ahead and did my 10-minute TED-like pitch.  I was overwhelmed with the positive response afterwards – especially from men who told me that they finally felt this was a gender conversation that they could understand and therefore enabled them to take action. Subsequently, I have found this to be the general response from men who, quite frankly, have been a bit battered with the bias training approach.  They know they will never feel the “right” way even after the training. Not all, but many men really want to support women in the workplace; they just don’t know how.  And, beyond helping women, Grace Meets Grit provides an understanding of how different styles can be beneficial in business situations and even how men can balance both styles within their teams and themselves.


Millennials Redefine Gender Issues

What’s your view of the Millennial generation in terms of gender issues? What hopes do you have for them as they assume leadership roles?

daina middletonMillennials have perhaps the most open definition of gender of any generation in history. Gender is a fluid concept.  I talked with a young women the other day who described to me her own journey with sexual affiliation, and it demonstrated how comfortable she was talking about and experiencing the subject – far more than I could imagine when I was her age. Because of this, they truly don’t understand why there are still gender issues in the workplace.  One of the reasons I wrote Grace Meets Grit is because when my Millennial daughter entered the workforce and encountered gender issues for the first time, she was shattered.  She called me in tears and said, “Mom, I thought this was all fixed!” I raised her to be about as “lean-in” as you can imagine, and that behavior caused her to be slapped immediately back into place right out of the gate. She also encountered frustration and miscommunications when status was prevalent in the situation. In both cases, she has little tolerance and likely will leave corporate America as a result.  I want these young workers to have realistic expectations about what they will face, but not give up the innate skills they bring. I could have done a better job preparing my daughter in this way.  I hope that the book will provide this for others entering the workplace and moving into a leadership position.

Companies need to inspire, recruit and retain Millennials, and their unique and different demands will drive a movement toward transformational leadership.  This is quite positive for Millennials, for women and for companies. On the other hand, I fear many companies will lose these young workers because these workers have high standards, little patience and nearly zero loyalty.  If we can retain them to be the next generation of leaders, they may forge a positive transformation beyond what we can imagine today.


Grace Meets Grit: How to Bring Out the Remarkable, Courageous Leader Within

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