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The Way Women Lead

For women, the secret of leadership means discovering your own path and then bringing others along.

By Rahel Musleah

Sharna Goldseker remembers the first time she lit her own Chanukiyah—when she was 12 years old. Today, that Chanukiyah is a metaphor for her leadership.

“There was something so empowering about doing the ritual myself,” says Goldseker, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. Lighting the candle herself, she says, symbolized a vital aspect of leadership: leading by example. “I can teach others what it means to play an active leadership role.”

Chanukah’s message—the power of one—offers a valuable message for creating and inspiring leadership. “It was one person, Matityahu, who started the Maccabean revolt. He then gained support from his family and community,” says Sharon Brous, rabbi of Ikar, a Jewish spiritual center in Los Angeles. “One drop of oil lights up the entire week. Each individual has the potential to set the world afire and transform it. Our work is to figure out what our fire is.”

You might not think that Judith Shapiro, the president of Barnard College, would ever have doubted her “fire,” her leadership capacity. Yet in her early teens, when her synagogue invited her to participate in a program because of her “leadership potential,” she was startled. “I never thought of myself as a leader,” she says. At the time, it seemed that being a leader meant being popular, she says. She felt she didn’t even know how to dress right or how to behave around boys.

Over the years, Shapiro developed a sense of confidence, graduating near the top of her high school class, playing starring roles in theater productions and forging a career as a cultural anthropologist. One of the most powerful role models she encountered was the headman of the Tapirape village in Central Brazil. “If the central village plaza needed to be cleared for a major festival, he would take up his machete, go out into the plaza and start the work of clearing, asking who was going to join him. Soon, the other men were out there with him, all working together.”


Judith Shapiro
Today, Shapiro has redefined and refined her concept of leadership to mean “following your own path and bringing others along with you to make a significant difference in the world, and being fueled by a sense of mission.” But just how women identify, create and negotiate their own paths has become a hot subject of study and debate. Dr. Judy Rosener, whose 1990 article, “Ways Women Lead,” pioneered the idea of differences in men’s and women’s leadership styles, says men and women tend to see the world through different lenses, and their leadership styles vary accordingly.

 Rosener says that men generally tend to lead in a linear, direct, top-down, command-and-control, results-oriented style, while women adopt a more interactive, multi-tasking, collaborative and team-oriented style, and are engaged in the process as well as the results. Brain and hormone research shows that women tend to use both hemispheres of their brains simultaneously, so their approach is more holistic, while men use one hemisphere as they hone in and focus on problems.

“Women look at the world with a searchlight. Men use a spotlight,” says Rosener, professor emerita in the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California–Irvine. She stresses that her findings do not imply that one style is better or worse than the other.

Not everyone agrees that the distinctions are that clear-cut. Shapiro notes that gender stereotyping can be dangerous: “Some women don’t listen to anybody and some are consultative,” she says. She describes her own leadership style as “open and hands-on. Sharing information is extremely important. I’m always willing to listen and learn.” That openness extends to a readiness to take advantage of the unexpected. “It’s good to have a career goal but not be too rigid,” says Shapiro, who was tapped from academia to be the provost of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, prior to her Barnard appointment 12 years ago.

Shifra Bronznick

“I don’t want to hold a banner for women’s distinctive skills,” says Shifra Bronznick, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, “but because we don’t abandon our caregiving responsibilities to be leaders, we bring a more multi-dimensional approach. Sometimes women lead in a conventional way, but sometimes their experiences, responsibilities and values result in a different kind of leadership. The real question is: ‘Under what conditions can more women—and men—lead differently more of the time?’ ” Leadership, she adds, is a verb, not a job title. “It’s about exercising leadership. We are mired in myths that obscure our perspectives about what leadership really looks like.”

Rosener points out that companies have begun to realize that differences in women’s leadership styles represent added value, often resulting in higher returns on their investments. Yet, despite the gains women have made in reaching the top echelons of business leadership, the Business Women’s Network reports that in 2002 women still made up only 13 percent of corporate officers of Fortune 500 firms, and held only 6.2 percent of senior positions. According to Catalyst, an organization that works to advance women in business, 98 percent of men in executive positions are married with children; fewer than half of women are married, and only a third are married with children.

Women leaders sometimes face a double-edged sword, Rosener says. If they act like men, people don’t like them. If they act feminine, they aren’t perceived as leaders. Difficulties in the traditional business world have led women to start their own organizations at twice the rate of men.

Brous did just that. In 2004, she founded Ikar, a “community of purpose.” “Ikar is not about charismatic leadership. My personality is not the source of the dogma,” says Brous, 32. “Everything stems from the vision, in which human dignity is real for all people. I believe in the Torah vision of an integrated whole, in which a person and community are aware of the brokenness of the world and the human heart.” What makes a good leader, says Brous, is a good message, and the ability to direct people to reach the spiritual, political and intellectual clarity that they may not otherwise have.”

Because she doesn’t lead a conventional synagogue, Brous, the mother of two young children, has avoided the challenges many women rabbis face. “There’s still so much disparity between men’s and women’s salaries in my field. If we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to figuring out what is distinctive about us, and how to communicate that in a way that is compelling and has an impact, and when communities value us as individuals, then some of the disparity will hopefully fade.”

Goldseker, 31, found her niche by identifying and filling a need in the Jewish community—the next generation’s involvement in Jewish life and philanthropy. In her position with the Bronfman Philanthropies, and a volunteer (until recently) with the Jewish Funders Network, she created resources, know-how and networking to approach philanthropy from a multigenerational perspective. A leader, she says, helps name and frame an issue, and then empowers others to work on it.

Her youth is an asset, she says, because it has given her an insight into her peers. “Leaders come from all ages, places and backgrounds,” she says. Negotiating among different generations required her to find a balance between listening and saying what’s hard to say. For example, seasoned leaders in Jewish life may want the younger generation to follow the same path they took. “It’s hard to say, ‘allow the next generation to find a way that resonates for them,’” she says. “We experiment to see what affects and creates outcomes and changes.”

Abby Scher’s idea of leadership was shaped by the women’s movement. Scher, previously director of the Independent Press Association-New York, an association of ethnic and community newspapers (and currently with a think tank called Political Research Associates), says a leader’s role is to build a team where everybody’s best abilities are pulled into play. But, she says, “I’ve also learned there are certain moments when you have to jump-start something alone.”

Working with mostly male editors from countries as divergent as Haiti, Pakistan and Poland, Scher, 44, says she never felt that her leadership as a woman—a Jewish woman—was an issue. Clarity was critical: “You have to be ruthlessly honest and transparent to build trust. When you don’t know an answer, say so. It’s not a weakness. Work together to find an answer instead of hiding and pretending or using someone else’s answer.”

The more visceral challenge for women who aspire to a collaborative style, Scher says, is that sometimes “you have to be vicious and cut losses when people don’t work out. I’ve had to fire people that I liked to get a project to rise to the level I want.” In addition, “it’s urgent to create new styles of leadership. There’s a lot of dead thinking out there.”

Leadership doesn’t necessarily mean being the CEO of a large corporation, nor is there one leadership style that fits all circumstances, says Leeat Granek, 26, an advanced doctoral student in feminist critical psychology at York University in Toronto. “You can be a leader in your community. Leadership means you are speaking with integrity and standing up for what is true and right.” For instance, on her academic listserv, Granek fought against the potential censorship of comments about the recent conflict in the Middle East. “I felt we should have the right to talk about things that are meaningful and important to us,” she says.

An outspoken teenager, Granek says she was “squashed” by people who didn’t think being outspoken was appropriate, but that her parents supported her unconditionally. “Judaism also taught me that we are responsible for engaging the world and setting an example, and that there is a moral and ethical way to live,” says Granek. “People don’t realize how pervasive an influence Judaism is on our psyches. It’s a way of being and seeing the world.”

Jewish values inform the visions, goals and styles of many Jewish women leaders. There’s tzedakah, tikkun olam, social justice, reverence for education, the tradition of questioning—all these rank high among Jewish priorities. “It’s not just giving back out of obligation, but giving back to repair the world,” says Goldseker. Shapiro notes: “I like the description of Jews as a people who argue with God, which leads to the idea of critical engagement and debate. The last thing I want is to be surrounded by people who just agree with me. I like staff meetings to be something of a free-for-all. We air all the views, I get the clearest possible picture, and then I make a decision.”

Bronznick adds the value of Shabbat. “Even God rested on the seventh day. 24/7 is not a part of Jewish culture. Work is important, but everyone should also be part of family and community. If we’d really integrate that value into our organizations, we’d run them differently.” Bronznick states bluntly that the Jewish community is an “inhospitable place” for professional women’s leadership, with a “terrible gender gap” and few women leaders of Jewish communal institutions. “Talented women become leaders elsewhere,” she says. “If we shared power in a more equitable way, our leaders and institutions would be more effective.”

Bronznick, 52, says her commitment to women’s leadership stems from her commitment to equity. “It’s outrageous to write off 50 percent of the population. I am deeply egalitarian and think that leaders need to learn as well as to teach; listen, facilitate and frame, not just present and pontificate; take care as well as take charge; fix our institutions so they work well and respond to the multidimensional needs people have. Having a mix of people in leadership really helps sharpen our thinking, deepen our creativity and increase our flexibility.”

But even when women reach senior positions, they may not be the strongest supporters of family-friendly policies, says Dana Friedman, who founded and headed the Families and Work Institute in New York for seven years, and presides over Women on the Job, a nonprofit organization promoting women’s workplace issues. She also is creating a new organization for early child care. “A lot of women who made it had to make enormous sacrifices to get there. They don’t feel secure enough to stick their necks out on family-friendly policies. A man with a working wife and children is probably more open.”

Though she says the gap between what men and women want is far narrower in the younger generation, she is not optimistic that the work world will be much different for her daughters, 19, 16 and 14. “There are still many firsts to be had. A lot of big doors have been broken but the fundamentals, the ways people are recruited, managed and rewarded, have not changed much.”

In Friedman’s own business, she tries to model what she recommends to others. “The thing that weighs on me every night is the awesome responsibility for the livelihoods of a lot of people,” she says. She describes her own leadership style as creative, innovative and mission-driven. “Employees need to know that what they do connects to the organization’s larger mission.”

Shapiro advises women to have confidence in themselves and not be swayed by others. “It’s important to know your stuff, and to have actual knowledge and experience. Be good at your work. But as a leader, you’re not going to do everything perfectly. You can’t fuss later over your mistakes. Step aside and look at yourself the way a good friend does. Instead of taking it personally, take a franker, friendlier approach. Women can get into guilt trips or feel inadequate. Maintain a sense of humor, curiosity and patience.”

That, in fact, is why women leaders emphasize the role of mentors—sources of guidance, inspiration, support and practical
advice. “Know your own strengths and weaknesses,” suggests Friedman, “and surround yourself with people who fill the holes and challenge you.” “Women need to look at everyone around them and learn,” says Rosener, cautioning against “hitching yourself to one person.”

Granek experienced mentoring at an early age when, at 18, she attended the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership in New York. Founded in 1997 by Naomi Wolf and Margot Magowan, Woodhull’s original mission was to provide young women beginning their careers with guidance, support and mentoring to develop a “compassionate use of power.” “It’s important to help women become leaders with an eye to social justice and ethics in the workplace,” says Woodhull’s executive director, Wende Jager-Hyman. The program soon expanded to women of all ages, ethnic and social backgrounds; its curriculum includes financial literacy, negotiation, public speaking, conflict resolution and consensus building.

One huge hurdle for women, says Jager-Hyman, is learning to “own” their accomplishments, to stand up and say, “I’ve done x, y and z, and I do it well.” “It’s not a question of taking on the attributes of men; it’s recognizing what you yourself have done and taking credit for it...We ask people to push the envelope, to work on outer skills—how to dress, opening your diaphragm to talk, standing up straight—as well as inner skills: What holds you back? What has squashed your dreams?”

“We have to work on ourselves first before we can become leaders,” says Granek. “Connect with the voice inside yourself that knows what it is you want to do.” “The world is so complicated,” adds Bronznick, “that we can’t outsource leadership to  ‘experts.’ We all have the capacity to take a stand.”


Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist, author and speaker. Visit her website, www.rahelsjewishindia.com.
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