Women as Leaders

The official portrait of Lynn Martin hangs in the Department of Labor.

What do we mean when we call someone a leader?

There are plenty of lists on what makes an effective leader. Rather than list those, let's look at some real leaders and see what we can learn from them.

Women are leading an economic revolution in this country. Nearly 10.4 million American companies are female-owned, and women are starting businesses twice as fast as men. These women-owned businesses generate $1.9 trillion in annual sales and employ more people than all the Fortune 500 companies combined. Women already employ 12,800,000 workers and are hiring more each year.1

Lynn Martin, former US Secretary of Labor (1991-1993) said "One hundred years from now, people will talk about this time as the second period of women pioneers in America. Like the settlers of old, we will change the landscape for generations to come."

Let's see what we can learn from some of these pioneers. These are women who have made it to the top in the business world and women leaders who are making a difference at the local level.

Let's look at some impressive business leaders. The book On Our own Terms -Portraits of Women Business Leaders2 gives us some insight into 15 women who have made it to the top in the business world. This book targets diverse business fields, ethnic backgrounds, ages, and ways of achieving success. The 15 women include 4 immigrants, 3 minorities, 5 who started or purchased firms, 3 who broke barriers within corporations, 2 who lead major social service organizations, and 4 who inherited business. The business areas include computer software and networking, food production and services, communications, charities, lingerie, healthcare, sheet-metal fabrication, a railroad, and the Cherokee Nation.

Lets take a look some attributes of these leaders:

Their lifestyles vary -- divorced, widowed, single, full families
They all struggled through difficult periods in their personal lives (death of parents/spouse, poverty, health problems, divorce, ...)
None of them are "superwomen." On any given day, none is the perfect CEO, perfect mother, perfect spouse, perfect friend, perfect citizen, or perfect housekeeper.
These women met tough challenges, made some difficult choices, and faced changes in their lives.

In our characterization of real leaders, let's include some impressive New Mexico women. These include Mercedes Agogino, the first woman physics Ph.D. graduate from UNM and physics professor (retired) at Eastern New Mexico University; Margaret Dike, a much honored pioneer educator and volunteer; Nancy Archuleta, who, when her husband died, borrowed money to start a small company in Las Cruces, NM, and built it into a $140M professional technical services firm; and Yolanda Jones King, a Ph.D. in chemical laser kinetics who has served the US Air Force (USAF) for twenty years in research and development programs, resource management and program planning, holds a patent in beam sensing techniques, has numerous publications in directed energy and space technologies, and is the first female chair and US Lead for a NATO Technology Panel.

Dr. Yolanda King currently heads the Space Based Sensing Branch of the Space Vehicles Directorate at the USAF Research Lab in New Mexico.

Looking at these 15 business leaders and our own New Mexico women leaders, we find some common characteristics in their approaches to leading. We can also glean some advice because, while men share their war stories, women tend to share their secrets of success.

Without exception, all have the passion to experience direct results from their own actions. They want to make a difference whether it's being a female role model, teaching young people, creating a better salad dressing, or improving the bottom line of their own company.
They set both long and short-term goals. They each have a vision of where they should be. When opportunity knocks, these women open the door!
They believe in what they are doing and just don't give up. They won't accept failure; instead they create opportunities for success.
These women all work hard and are not only willing, but seek out additional responsibilities.
They accept that stress goes along with succeeding and learn how to use stress positively. The secret is to manage stress and not let it manage you.
Those in senior manager positions demonstrate creativity in overcoming the fact that all senior managers, men and women, lose leisure time -- they combine business and pleasure in meals, theater, travel, and other activities - career and family are intertwined.
These women set their own terms. They take charge of their lives. Wilma Mankiller, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 through 1995, said that you soon realize that "you're either going to live somebody else's dream or live your own dream." Carol Betz, Executive Chairman of Autodesk, Inc. a software and services firm adds, "You know best what you're supposed to do. Don't pass control (of your life) to someone else."

Looking at the approach these women take to leading others, we also find some common characteristics:

Most of these leaders reflect the "feminine" consensus management style (collaborative decision making, in which trust and inclusion are valued) rather that the directive style more characteristic of male managers.
These women create what could be called "families" in otherwise anonymous environments; they reach out to strugglers to help them become useful members of the workforce. Ms. Archuleta's employees even referred to themselves as family.
Those in management have a real desire to relate to their employees on a personal level and all share a similar concern for customers. Serving the customer (inside or outside the organization) is their number one priority. They treat people as individuals; they have genuine interest in their lives.
Many place a strong reliance on the use of intuition. They trust their instincts.
These leaders exhibit positive attitudes and high self-esteem, labeling obstacles as challenges to be met.
Perhaps the characteristic that comes out the strongest is that they are all risk takers. They were willing to take a chance to do what they wanted. As Karen Panko, an award winning real estate broker puts it, "You have to have passion for what you do and not be afraid to go out of your comfort zone to make your dreams come true."

The lives and experiences of these leaders lead to ten small bits of advice to all of us looking to be leaders:

  1. Believe in yourself and what you aspire to do. Never give up. You can make a difference.
  2. Don't run from change or let yourself stagnate. Anticipate, prepare, and eagerly adapt to change; look at it as a chance to succeed.
  3. Follow your head; do what you want to do. Have the courage to change if a situation isn't working out.
  4. Know yourself well enough to give yourself options. Know your strengths and play to them. Know your weaknesses and strive to improve.
  5. Be clear about what you know and what you don't know.
  6. Be someone who can be trusted. Stand up for your beliefs; don't shift directions with a change in the wind. As you want to be trusted, display trust in others. Once you say what to do, let them do their job.
  7. COMMUNICATE: Let people know what is going on. If you don't know something, say you don't know. Let people know what the goal is and get behind that goal.
  8. Take time to be good to yourself; stay fit - if you don't have your health, then nothing else will matter.
  9. Set priorities, be flexible, and realize that everything in your life doesn't have to be perfect.
  10. Recognize that lifelong learning is essential; upgrade yourself and continue your education. Participate in training programs, read, and learn from other people in your industry.

It is clear from these women leaders that leadership isn't a job; it's a set of skills, a positive approach, and a belief in yourself. Today the only job security is our continuing ability to perform, and leadership skills are critical no matter where you are in an organization. Look for opportunities to nurture those skills and build the attitude that may just help you attain more in your life.

As said by Harvard economist, Claudia Goldin, it is highly probable that the women of the future "won't see the ceiling, but the sky."

Where do I get more Information?

On Our Own Terms; Portraits of Women Business Leaders by Enkelis, Olsen, & Lowenstein.

Women in Business Magazine articles:
      Opening the Window of Opportunity, Jan/Feb 96
      Voices of Women Entrepreneurs, May/Jun 96
      Keeping a Balance, Jan/Feb 97

Secrets of Executive Success, Golin, Bricklin, & Diamond

Women Managers, Strategies For Success, The Economics Press, Inc.



1. Center for Women's Business Research, Women-Owned Businesses in the United States, 2006: A Fact Sheet (Washington, DC: Center for Women's Business Research, 2006).

2. On Our Own Terms; Portraits of Women Business Leaders by Enkelis, Olsen, & Lowenstein (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1995).

Barbara Torres
Torres Consulting
Albuquerque, NM