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12 Leadership Lessons from The Best Female Leader I Know

As we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we think of gender equality, the gender gap, women’s rights. and breaking the glass ceiling. 

It’s important to discuss women’s ability to lead and the role of women in leadership. 

And when I decided I wanted to interview a female leader in business, Debbie Ward immediately came to mind.

Debbie is a wife, mom, Director of Digital Marketing at Hay House, and a mom entrepreneur who had her own business.

I have four kids, three boys, and a girl, and my oldest is 29 now and my youngest is 19 now. So 10 years between the oldest to the youngest.

Honestly, motherhood has had a huge impact on me as a leader. You learn a lot of things when you’re raising children and navigating motherhood – balancing all the things that you have to balance as a mother. I think that being a mom has definitely contributed to the way I am as a leader.

Debbie was my team leader at Brave Thinking Institute last year and I am not exaggerating when I say she’s the best female leader I know.

You were a wonderful wealth of knowledge when it came to content marketing and all the things around SEO, social media, and website optimization. You taught me a lot and we worked really well together. It was a lot of fun.

As you read that, you may already have a clue of how humble, affirming, and pleasant Debbie is as a leader and business strategy expert. She learns from everyone and from everything, without cattiness or competition. 

It was an honor to work with her, learn from her, and experience having her as a female leader, female mentor and brainstorm partner. She values people’s ideas and gives people credit for them.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s dive into the interview and you’ll find out why I admire her leadership characteristics and want to share them with you.

Leadership Lesson #1 ~ Learn what you need to know

Debbie was a French major in college and graduated when the Internet didn’t exist. So how is she so smart and successful in her current role in digital marketing?  

“Learn what you need to know” is the tenet I live by and has served me really well.

I went to a liberal arts college and what I learned was how to learn. It’s important that people understand that it’s their responsibility to teach themselves. It’s nobody else’s responsibility to teach you what you need to know, whether that’s how to do something or a way to think. How you think about certain things, what kind of strategy you have, or how to research is your responsibility. 

There are some things in marketing that are always tried and true that were the same then and are the same now, but there are many different strategies that are brand new and constantly evolving. Every single day I try to learn something. I try to read, I try to listen to a podcast, I try to give myself time to think and put ideas together, and that has just served me really well.

And on top of being a lifelong learner about the industry you’re in, be a lifelong learner about yourself. That’s a very big part of leadership.

Leadership Lesson #2 ~ Have a collaborative spirit

I’m sure you’ve heard about leadership styles – which is relevant to both a male leader and a female leader.

There’s Autocratic Leadership, Transactional Leadership, Bureaucratic Leadership, Charismatic Leadership, Transformational Leadership, Coach-Style Leadership, Democratic Leadership, Laissez-Faire Leadership, Strategic Leadership… you name it.

So I was very curious to learn about Debbie’s style as a female leader, and it made sense why it was the ideal leadership style for me.

What is your leadership style?

I would definitely say I’m a collaborative leader. I like to be the kind of person that’s going to help the people that I’m leading spark ideas, vet ideas, and test ideas. 

I want to be a safe place where they can take risks because I think if you’re going to evolve in business as a leader, as a business, you must take risks and you must create an environment where it’s safe to be creative.

Allow space for the team to come up with ideas and collaborate without being afraid that you’re going to be put down or that it’s a bad idea. Any idea is a good idea in my opinion. You can vet it, but you have to get it out. And if you’re afraid to get it out, then you’re nowhere. So for me, collaboration is really important.

Where did your collaborative leadership style come from?

I have three sisters. My sister Anne has disabilities, so there was a lot of focus on her in our family. Teamwork was always fostered at home. It didn’t work to be competitive with each other. It was a “we’re all in this together and what are we going to do as a family,” approach.  

And I have a twin sister and she was with me through every single big moment from going to kindergarten to high school, to graduating from college. So I’ve always had a companion by my side, which I think helped me always be team-oriented.

I’ve also been a leader since I was little. I remember other people looking up to me even in grammar school. In high school, having leadership positions was a natural path for me. But I also think I had a really good example from my parents. My late dad was an attorney. When I was in middle school, he was in a leadership position as the president of a bank. He was not authoritarian at all and very collaborative. He was very well-liked.

I later had the privilege of working in that bank and with people that reported to him. Watching him interact with his team, how they worked with him and how he worked with them, and how he set expectations was a great example. The collaborative spirit came from my upbringing and then seeing him as a great example of how to lead people.

Leadership Lesson #3 ~ Know (and live) your Core Values

This one lesson can be really 3 lessons because I share Debbie’s values!  I believe these are essentials in every home, workplace, or any interaction with anyone. 

What are the most important values you demonstrate as a successful woman?

1- Empathy. 

As a female leader, you may have a little bit of an edge over men in this regard.

Being able to understand what motivates people, understand what kind of work makes people happy, what kind of environment people like to work in, what people don’t like to work in, and what people don’t like to do is essential as a leader.

This is not from an output standpoint because everybody can do certain things, but from understanding where people are in terms of what drives them emotionally and what lights them up.

If you can create a work environment where they feel safe and understood, they will do great work. Empathy is what allows you to do that. 

Toxic leaders may use what lights someone up to manipulate them into doing what they need. Someone’s passion is not to be misused for business advantage – it’s about discovering it because you genuinely care and want to help them achieve their personal goals. This is how you can create a two-way relationship, where you are helping them and they are helping you, and it’s mutually beneficial.  It has to be genuine and authentic, not a tool to crank up or down as needed.

2- Fairness. 

Fairness isn’t equality. When I was a kid, my dad used to say, “Life is not fair.” He was a very positive person so I was confused by that because I perceived that as being negative.

I came to understand that what he meant is that you’re not owed a smooth path in life so be grateful for what you have and be grateful for the path that’s put in front of you and embrace it.

Treat people fairly and to help people get on the path that’s going to be the one that’s fruitful for them, but understand that it’s not always going to be easy and that’s okay.

If you have the expectation that it’s going to always be easygoing, you will be disappointed in life. It’s okay to work hard and it’s okay to push people to work hard as long as they’re on the right path.

However, you must challenge people in a way that is not overwhelming for them so that they’re getting a fair shot at what they can do.

A teacher I know explained it this way:

“I would tell my kids that fair means that everybody has what they need to have to succeed and that can be very different for different people.”

So if somebody needs extra support from me as a leader and somebody else doesn’t need that support, that’s okay. And it doesn’t mean that this person is better than that person. I want to make sure that they both have a fair opportunity, not an equal, but a fair opportunity to do the best that they can do.

3- Respect.

Without respect, relationships are impossible. So I strive to give respect to the people I work with by listening to their ideas, believing in their intentions, and valuing what they can bring to the table. 

My dad was extremely respectful to everyone he encountered and he brought me up to expect respect. My husband is extremely respectful of me too.

Disrespect is a huge trigger for me. The minute I feel disrespected is the minute that I become unengaged. I think it’s extremely negative to treat someone disrespectfully, even for a second. 

Respect the people you work with. Respect their voice. Respect their ideas. Respect their intentions. 

You can disagree, you can bring up something someone did that you think wasn’t right, but you cannot do it in a disrespectful manner and be an effective leader.

Leadership Lesson #4 ~ Practice Self-Leadership

What leadership lessons guide your actions in interacting with your team?

1- Self-leadership. 

The ability we have to process what’s coming at us, recognize how it’s making us feel, and then separate our actions from that feeling. 

Let’s say someone who reports to me giving me a hard time or if somebody above me is coming at me and it doesn’t feel good, recognizing what that is, giving myself some space between that, acknowledging what that feeling is, and then thinking about how I want to be perceived at this moment, and then separate.

This is hard and I’ve definitely made missteps when it comes to that, but I think it’s critical. It’s important to come into every meeting with a clean slate. It’s damaging to drag negative energy throughout the day from meeting to meeting. It does nothing for the team, and it does nothing for you.  Put it aside. Pick a time to deal with it and move on until then.

Leadership Lesson #5 ~ Give People Grace

2. Grace

Even if you’re talking to somebody every day, seeing somebody every day, you do not know what people are going through in their personal life. 

If something feels off if I can sense that somebody that is reporting to me suddenly is having difficulty and there’s no reason for it that I can see, it’s important to recognize that there might be something else going on behind the scenes that are impacting them and that’s okay.

They deserve that right to experience whatever they’re experiencing. And if it’s impacting their work on a long-term basis, yes, address it. But everybody’s entitled to a bad moment, a bad day, a bad hour, a bad meeting. And so giving people grace I think is really, really important as long as it’s not a trend.

I’ve sat through meetings shell-shocked, going through heart-wrenching experiences. Something devastating can be happening to someone on your team and you don’t have the right to know that until somebody tells you. It’s important to remember that.

3. Accountability

It was harder for me to hold people accountable when I first became a manager. I felt like I was being a taskmaster. But then I realized that holding people accountable is really a way to help people shine. It also helps you as a leader determine where they need support.

So if they’re hitting a goal, great. They’re hitting a goal. Maybe you can do more. If you’re not hitting a goal, let’s figure out why. Do you have too much work? Is this not in your wheelhouse? Is there some other thing that you need? Whatever the case may be. But if you don’t have the check-in and if you don’t have the expectation that X is going to be done by such and such a time, you can’t take those steps. You can’t learn from that. 

One of the leadership skills I find most refreshing about Debbie is her ability to keep someone accountable in a way that feels supportive, safe, and encouraging.

Leadership Lesson #6 ~ Assume good intentions

My belief is that everybody is trying their hardest most of the time. If something doesn’t get done, it’s very rare in my experience that somebody has bad intentions or has done it on purpose to sabotage a project or to sabotage somebody or to be spiteful, or because they don’t care. I just don’t believe that’s the case. 

So when you come from that place, if I’m making that assumption that they want to get it done and they want to do it well, then there must be something else is at play that’s preventing them from doing it because their intention is good, their desires are good, their execution is what’s off, right?

This could be either that there’s too much work on their plate or they’re not in their zone of genius. It’s something that they’re not loving to do or they don’t have a piece of information that they need. There’s something that’s blocking them from doing it that may be out of their control.

So when somebody’s late on a project or doesn’t hit a deadline, my question is: “What was the hurdle and how do we get past the hurdle? Because I know you want to do a good job, and I know you have my back, and I have your back. So let’s figure it out together. 

You’re building a relationship, you’re building trust, you’re building confidence. 

If it turns out that there isn’t a block, then that’s a different story.  But my experience has been that there’s something in the environment they have to change. And it’s my job as a leader to help them figure out what it is and to move the block.

The other thing is to communicate is that I believe that they’re capable of doing it. And if I didn’t think they were capable of doing it, then they wouldn’t have that on their plate. It’s the two things, belief in their good intention and belief that they can do it.

What female leaders inspire you today and why?

There are two great leaders that I had the honor of working for. 

The first female leader was Gerry Thompson and she hired me as her executive administrator, right out of college. She worked at a company called the American Institute for Foreign Study. 

It was interesting because on my first day, there were some other young women that worked in the office, and they took me to lunch. We were at a big table, and they told me that she was awful and that I would never last.

Gerry was an excellent leader. She was the only female leader in the company, surrounded by men and I admired her very much for the way that she navigated that world, even in the 1980s. 

She was always poised. She was always organized. I thought she was always kind. She had high expectations for the people that worked with her.

I think that’s why some of the other people thought I would never last. They didn’t like being held accountable. 

And I learned so much from her. She promoted me, and after she left her position, I’ve lost touch with her, but I still wonder where she ended up because she was very smart, fair, and kind.

Then I worked for a female leader in her seventies named Pam McIntyre at St. Louis Community College. She was also functioning in a world of a lot of men. A lot of the department heads were men and a lot of the administration were men and she was smarter than all of them, honestly.

She didn’t forget anything, she knew her numbers, and she had high expectations, but she led with kindness. 

Out of every female leader that I know, I think those two personal ones of mine were probably the most influential women leaders. They were both very strong and kind.

Leadership Lesson #7 ~ Be Strong AND Kind

I can say the same about Debbie as a female leader – very strong, smart, fair, and kind.

What women leaders in history do you consider your role models?

When I was little, I was interested and intrigued by Marie Curie. She was a trailblazer back then: A woman scientist. I was very intrigued with her and she stands out to me as “the one.” She was also French and obviously, I ended up being a French major!

What makes a female leader great?

Vision

Besides empathy and relationship-building, being an effective project manager is key. You have to be able to push a project through, organize yourself, organize your team and execute on a project.

As a leader, you set the vision and the mission, and the strategy for a project. Even if you have people that are responsible for the execution of it, your role is to keep them accountable and make sure that vision gets accomplished. 

Influence.

You have to influence up, you have to influence down, you have to influence at your level.

And this must be done in a way that’s not threatening to any of them, a way that’s collaborative and team-oriented. You have to know what’s in it for them to be a good influencer.

Bring what you know to the table without stepping on toes and without making it feel like you’re coming in and trying to exert some authority that’s not there.

Sometimes I wondered how Debbie knew exactly when to let me work independently and give me that freedom I needed and also knew when to be there and support me and follow up with accountability. I loved her answer:

Leadership Lesson #8 ~ Trust Your Team

When you first start working, you’re very much on an execution level and you’re doing a lot of things.

And as you rise up through management, you get promoted because you’re good at doing things. But when you become a manager, you have to make a pivot to not doing the thing, which is hard because you’re used to doing the thing and that’s what got you there. 

So your tendency is to want to go back to that role, but you have to let go of doing the thing, especially when being in charge of a lot more people.

It’s impossible for you to know at the level of the doer every single thing that they know. You shouldn’t know every single thing that everybody that you’re leading knows. 

You must become a thinker, known for the way you think instead of for what you do. It’s a hard transition. The only way that you can make that transition is to let go of the doing and trust that the people that you are managing are doing the thing.

Give them the space to be able to show you that they can do it. If you’re micromanaging, you’re taking away their opportunity to think creatively, to think of creative solutions, you’re taking away their opportunity to do things in a way that makes the most sense to them and not to you.

If I impose my way of thinking on you, it’s going to make your job a lot harder.

I think that you have to give people the freedom to come up with their own solutions and come up with their own framework.

I’m not going to put them in a box and make them do something a certain way. Unless it’s not working, unless they can’t figure it out for themselves. And then it’s my role to help them figure out what that is. 

Not everybody thinks the same way. Just make it easy for me to do my job and I’ll do great work. The outcome will still be the same or better. People need autonomy. 

You must provide a framework of accountability around it, but give them the space and I think that gives them the confidence to do it. And it tells them that you trust that they can do it in the way that’s going to work best for them. 

Now, there are times when you have to say, “You know what? Let’s dive in together because maybe this isn’t working. Is there a better way?”

Unless you’re training them, give them the chance to figure it out on their own. It’s like motherhood, right? You’ve got to let your children go. You keep a framework, but you’ve got to give them space to be able to figure out what the lay of the land is and how best to get through it while you’re keeping an eye on the big picture.

Leadership Lesson #9 ~ Create a purposeful culture

Why are female leadership qualities more effective in today’s world? 

I wouldn’t say women business leaders are more effective than their male counterparts. We complement what men do. I think right now where we are culturally in our world today with world events going on, I think there’s a deep desire for people to understand that they have a purpose and that they are making a difference and whatever that means to them in their job.

When you’re empathetic and when you understand what makes the people that you’re leading tick, you can help them feel that they’re making a difference and that they’re living out their purpose in whatever way that might be.

There’s a shift, especially for companies, to have a value system because these days, consumers are not just buying a branding. They’re buying what stands behind the brand. And if you can’t help your employees embrace their values, which again goes to empathy, or you can’t help your company define what those values are, which I think is another thing that women bring to the table, then your company’s going to be in trouble.

I think women leaders help define the organizational culture, define the values for their customers and also for their employees.

And it’s not that men can’t, but I think a female leader sees things through a different lens than men. And I think you need both because your customers and your employees are men and women. 

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

Motherhood.

I think motherhood can be in some ways a barrier to a becoming a female leader. And I think we saw that with the number of women that had to resign versus the number of men that resigned as a result of current events. 

While being a mother brings certain traits that you can definitely transfer to leadership, it can also bring unique challenges. The responsibilities of motherhood hinder women from being bigger leaders in the workforce still to this day.

And the other thing about motherhood that is a double-edged sword somewhat is the ability to multitask, to keep a million things in your head as you’re going through your day: picking up this child, fixing up these lunches, playing this sport…

You’ve got the mother side and you’ve got the work side, which can create a lot of clutter in your head and it’s hard to prune it. 

Not giving women a voice.

Leadership Lesson #10 ~ Find Your Voice

I think it’s a struggle to find your voice as a woman and be authentic and not having to play the game of, “oh, this is how it should be done because that’s the way it’s been done for the past 100 years and that’s all male-driven.”

Women often feel like they have to pretend to be “tough” or adopt the way men would tackle something, when they may actually have a different style. There are certain definitions of a powerful woman or a female leader that are not valid. And I think that it’s hard for women to find their voice and still be perceived as strong and powerful leaders.

Why is women’s leadership important? Why are female leaders important?

The world is made up of men and women. And if women are not in leadership roles in government, in industries, in religions, you’re missing half of the equation. You’re missing a very valuable perspective without a female leader.

Leadership Lesson #11 ~ Embrace Diversity

It’s dangerous to have a company, a government, a religion, whatever, that’s run exclusively by men.

We’re a diverse community, so we should be led by a diverse group of leaders, not one certain kind of person.

Brands need to ask “What is a woman thinking of this? What is a Hispanic person thinking of this? What is a non-binary person thinking of? What do they value? What do you stand for as a company?

Or what don’t you stand for as a company? I think women should be able to weigh those decisions.

Why is female empowerment important? 

Things are changing so rapidly now with technology being so accessible and we have the ability to make quantum changes. 

It’s important to have women in leadership roles and to have everyone’s voice at the table so that you don’t make a huge misstep because that step is going to be huge. And it’s going to be harder to dial back and the only way you can do that is if you have representation.

What are the main challenges for female leaders? 

In the United States, leadership is still very much defined by male standards. Women still think they have to fit in to stand. out as a female leader.

The biggest challenge is redefining what leadership is because it’s not the authority figure. Leadership can have many different faces, but I don’t think every face is equally recognized right now because men have defined what it is. 

Women have a different way of leading that is as effective. But women leadership has a harder time being recognized as effective because it’s softer skills. It’s a different way. In my case, it’s collaboration, it’s understanding, it’s investing time in relationships. So it’s not tactical. It’s about the underlying foundation of how to build a relationship.

Male leadership is often focused on output and production and quotas and numbers. And that’s all very important but I think a female leader builds on a different foundation, different skill sets which need to be recognized as just as valuable and strong.

It’s important for people to recognize that there’s more than one foundation that you can build a team on and there’s more than one way to be a leader.

Leadership Lesson #12 ~ Help people feel like they belong

Today in our culture, even though we’re very connected, we all have cell phones and devices, and we’re on social media and text each other, there’s never been a time where we’ve been more disconnected. 

I think the end result of that is that people really feel a strong desire to belong.

And relationships are all about belonging, right? So, all the things that we’ve talked about, are teamwork, collaboration, empathy, safety, and trust. All of that builds a sense of belonging and that’s what employees want. They want to know that they belong.

When your team and all departments feel like they belong to a community, they want to do something good together.

They feel like you’re all part of something and we’re going to help you and you’re going to help us because we belong to this community.

I think it goes for customers and clients too. They want to feel like they belong to a brand that has values that are aligned with theirs, that have taken actions that they approve of and that they have this community of people in the world that they’re a part of. And I just think that’s something that’s missing now. At the core, everybody wants to feel like they belong.

When you feel like you belong, there is a sense of “we’re in this together.” And when you get that feeling, people don’t want to disappoint other people on the team. They want to be the support. They want to help people achieve what they’re trying to achieve. That is where it’s not tangible, you can’t graph it, you can’t measure it even, but when you take that away, everything falls apart.

What’s next in your career? 

I recently started a new role, so what’s immediately next for me is just figuring out how I can make a difference at the company where I am. So what’s definitely right in front of my face is:

How do I learn what I need to know? 

How do I create relationships with the people that I’m managing and with other team members?

How do I bring value? 

What’s the value proposition that I can bring? 

So it’s figuring that out right now.

Bonus Leadership Lesson ~ Continue to grow as a leader

I think self-leadership is always something that I can be working on. I want to continue to learn and understand that better. 

And then I think I want to understand or grow in terms of setting expectations, setting up accountability, figuring out where the processes are good and where they’re not so good, where they’re necessary and where it’s too much.

And how to prioritize the people and give them the good processes that they need to be able to flourish. Starting something new is always exciting. So I’m very much in the learning phase.

Final Thoughts on Leadership

Women play an important role in every organization because they bring different perspectives. However, leadership is more than team management or becoming executives in an organization. And it’s not about gender stereotypes, either. 

Leadership is about how you lead your life: using strategies and taking action toward making a positive impact.

With that, I’m so grateful for Debbie, for her wisdom, her courage, and her example. I didn’t choose her as the best female leader – she chose herself every single day we worked together.

I’m so grateful for the amazing women and great mentors I’ve had in my life and in my own leadership journey.

Happy International Women’s Day!

What piece of advice, quotes, or new ideas from Debbie’s insightful answers most resonated with you? Share it with us in the comments below, and tell us about the best female leader you’ve ever had!

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Kayla Klontz

Wednesday 23rd of March 2022

This is some great women empowerment!

Hannah G

Friday 18th of March 2022

These are some great lessons, thank you so much for sharing!

Elayna Fernandez ~ The Positive MOM

Saturday 19th of March 2022

You are welcome, Hannah! Debbie is so wise.

Patricia E

Tuesday 15th of March 2022

Women in leadership has come a long way. It is always empowering to see a woman succeed. It does begin at home. I try to encourage my daughters to try new things and hard thing as well. If they want it they have to work for it.

Elayna Fernandez ~ The Positive MOM

Thursday 17th of March 2022

Way to go, Patricia! Let's empower them early <3