Seven Key Skills for Strong Women Leaders

July 1, 2003
Strong leaders have a wealth of skills from which to draw, varying their leadership style to fit the situation or the individual.1

by Judith A. Porter, DDS, EdD

Strong leaders have a wealth of skills from which to draw, varying their leadership style to fit the situation or the individual.1 As situations become more complex, however, some skills, in my opinion, are more important than others, especially when dealing with groups (like dental societies and office staffs). Skills like team building2, À building consensus, Ã mediating conflict, and Õ identifying problems and their solutions are just some of the abilities capable leaders need in their arsenal.

Recent research3 indicates that women in particular perceive the importance of these abilities. Women were also found in this 2003 study3 to perceive themselves as more competent than men at Œ being open to the views of others, œ speaking and writing clearly, and – planning development activities for staff members.

Taken together, these seven abilities paint a nearly complete picture of competent leadership. Given that these are all skills for which women are known, it is understandable that an article in Business Week2 stated not long ago that "after years of analyzing what makes leaders most effective and figuring out who's got the Right Stuff, management gurus know how to boost the odds of getting a great executive: Hire a female."

As women, we are team builders2 who work not only at solving problems but who also strive to build the confidence of others5 to share in the exhilaration of solutions. We tend to be very "inclusive" in the way we speak and act with others, drawing them into our plans as we begin the process of constructing a team. We are skilled at making connections and forming networks of friends and colleagues. As we network and begin molding teams, we look for the strengths of others in order to nurture those strengths for the betterment of the individual and the group. As we delegate tasks to the people most capable of completing them, we raise the confidence of staff members by recognizing their efforts and celebrating their accomplishments.

Women are collaborative and open to the views of others6, soliciting the opinions of colleagues so they may participate in decision-making.7 Some leaders have a more autocratic style that, on the face, seems aloof and distant. Autocratic leaders typically make unilateral decisions that trickle down from the top. Women are more democratic in their leadership style1 and are skilled listeners with employees and contemporaries, spending time building relationships and being accessible and approachable. They explore alternatives to problem solving before arriving at a solution. For this reason, women have been noted to be more communal in their approach to leadership.8 Decisions are made with input from many sources, effervescent in the way they seem to come from the midst of the whole organization.

As we build teams and promote collaboration, we are using those same skills to build consensus within our organizations and staffs. Consensus builders strive to cultivate trust while making sure everyone involved understands the topic or problem. Staff members are asked to contribute their ideas and knowledge in an atmosphere of acceptance and camaraderie. Disagreement is welcome and celebrated for the new avenues of thought it might present. Issues are separated from personalities in the knowledge that it is the process of problem solving that is important (the journey), not the problem itself. With something new to the office, like HIPPA, the whole office staff becomes involved, brainstorming to consider the best ways of implementing the new guidelines. Everyone's views are heard and everyone's talents are needed to make it work. Presenting a treatment plan to a patient, the consensus builder acts as a source of information and guidance, drawing the patient into an active role in her own care. The patient's concerns are met with active listening skills and a willingness to guide patients as active participants in the outcome of their dental care.

Whether based on our role as nurturers or our ability to build consensus and consider diverse points of view, women are widely acknowledged to be peacemakers.9 Women usually recognize problems and begin implementing solutions within the environment before a situation can escalate. If a situation has already become volatile, women will use listening skills and a collaborative style to defuse communication problems to lead participants as a team to common solutions, ensuring that every voice is heard. Strong leaders model compromise and develop win/win solutions.

Closely aligned with mediating conflict is the skill of identifying problems and their solutions. Problems are familiar visitors to every organization or practice, and it is important to recognize the correct source of the difficulty. Women perceive themselves to be specifically adept at seeing where the problem lies and finding an appropriate solution.3 We are often change agents, gathering support for the resolution of a problem. Using our skills as collaborators, we solicit the opinion of others, determining what changes need to be made before implementing a solution. Instead of assigning blame, we frequently try to find a graceful way out for those responsible so our team or organization can remain strong and supportive of one another.

As Dr. Lori Trost stated10, educating, empowering, and energizing staff members holds a team together and breathes new life into a practice. Planning staff-development activities is a skill in which women perceive themselves to be quite competent. As we strive to empower and nurture the strengths of our team members, arranging for staff participation in continuing education or the mastery of new office technology accomplishes that goal. By teaching our staff, we are modeling empowerment by showing team members that we have faith in their ability to perform a task that we have personally mastered. Arranging for off-site continuing education sends the message that we value their membership in our practice enough to invest in their intellectual growth. It also conveys to our staff that we recognize the importance of breaking the routine of day-to-day, week-to-week practice. Training together gives a break from routine by drawing team members together in a different way as a functioning unit.

Most of the skills already mentioned depend on the seventh skill — our ability to be good communicators. Women use language to build enthusiasm and support11 for innovative projects and unique solutions to difficult problems. Women work at establishing rapport, knowing that strong relationships maintain the strength of the entire organization. Looking for common denominators with others comes naturally to us and helps to establish a harmonious atmosphere for our co-workers. We pride ourselves in giving concise direction to our co-workers and families, clearly communicating what is expected. Studies show that women are more likely to spend time listening to patients than male colleagues.

These seven skills, joined together, are a formula for success in a rapidly changing world. Whether or not you choose to pursue a leadership career in organized dentistry, the mere fact that you are reading this journal implies that you are already in a leadership position as a dental professional, setting an example for your staff members. The way you handle crisis and change has a profound impact on those around you. The way you build a team, empower, consider the views of others, resolve differences, educate, and clearly communicate your thoughts models leadership for your co-workers. Women can make a difference in organized dentistry and our world with these powerful gifts. The challenges of our new millennium require strong leaders with the skills to involve others and instill in them the enthusiasm to do the hard work required to solve current problems and those of the future.


1 Denmark, F.L. (1993) Women, Leadership, and Empowerment. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17, 343-356.

2 Rosen, R.H. & Brown, P.B. (1996). Leading People. New York: Viking.

3 Porter, J.A. (2003). The Relationship Between Competencies Perceived to be Important for Administrative Effectiveness and the Higher Education Administration Doctoral Program of Study: A Needs Assessment. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Marshall University, Huntington, WV.

4 Sharpe, R. (2000, November 20). As Leaders, Women Rule. Business Week, 74.

5 Kouzes, J.M. & Pozner, B.Z. (1987). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

6 Maccaby, M. (1981). The Leader. New York: Simon and Schuster.

7 Walck, C.L. (1997). Using MBTI in Management and Leadership: A Review of the Literature. In C. Fitzgerald & L.K. Kirby (Eds.) Developing Leaders: Research and Application in Psychological Type and Leadership Development (pp. 63-114).

8 Eagly, A.H. & Johannesen-Schmidt, M.C. (2001). The Leadership Style of Women and Men. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 781-798.

9 Forcey, L.R. (1991). Women As Peacemakers. Peace & Change, 16(4), 331-355.

10 Trost, L. (2003). Building Your Dream Team. Woman Dentist Journal, 1(2), 62-66.

11 Kirby, P.C., Paradise, L.V., & King, M.I. (1992). Extraordinary Leaders in Education: Understanding Transformational Leadership. Journal of Educational Research, 85(5), 303-311.

For additional information, you may contact Dr. Judith Porter at [email protected].