How Men Can Mentor Women Leaders

When Brigadier General (ret) Dana Born was coming up through the ranks athenarising-320x480as an Air Force officer, she often sensed that her male colleagues expected her leadership style to be just like theirs: directive, commanding, and hierarchical. But General Born’s natural leadership style—like that of many women—was more collaborative, democratic, and inclusive. Although her unique leadership style was inarguably effective, she often felt that her male superiors evaluated her style as too relational and collegial for a senior officer.

It turns out that General Born’s experience is not uncommon. Decades of research on gender and leadership reveals that women find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to leadership. On one hand, the women are wonderful stereotype suggests that most of us see women as understanding, kind, nurturing, and caring. Sounds good right? Not when it comes to leadership. Research shows that men and women see “real leaders” as action-oriented, dominant, competitive, self-sufficient, and willing to impose (his) will on others; characteristics we tend to associate with men. Of course, we all know men whose leadership style is more transformational. But men get a free pass when it comes to having a more flexible leadership style since their competence is assumed or based on potential compared to women who must prove themselves as a leader. So what’s a female leader to do? Enter the leadership double-bind faced by most women in western societies: She can be warm, friendly, and “nice” (embodying classically feminine traits we all expect from women at work) or she can be commanding, take charge, and kick ass, endeavoring to behave the way most of us expect leaders to act. If she chooses the former, she may be dismissed as unqualified to lead, but if she chooses the latter, she can risk the negative backlash and rejection experienced by many assertive women (yes, the iron bitch stereotype is alive and well).

Here is the problem: Businesses and organizations around the globe are engaged in a fierce battle for talent. Specifically, organizations are hungry for transformational leaders who score high on indices of social and emotional intelligence, value collaboration, and stimulate creativity through inspiration. In other words, institutions and companies are increasingly looking for leadership soft skills (e.g., empathy, approachability, and listening skills), the very behaviors that often come quite naturally to women. It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that organizations with women in crucial leadership positions perform better on key success markers than organizations with primarily male leadership.

How can organizations ensure that more women ascend to the upper echelons of leadership? Mentoring is one of the key ingredients. And quite often, key mentorships for a promising junior woman will be with male mentors. In many organizations, there are simply too few women in senior leadership positions to mentor rising female stars. And sometimes, women avoid mentoring junior women if the competition for the few jobs open to women is fierce.

Can men mentor women effectively? In our new book, Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, we show that the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. Men have to mentor women deliberately and thoughtfully for organizations to thrive. So gentlemen, if you are committed to mentoring a rising Athena—a junior woman with terrific promise—here are some key strategies.

First, honor her authentic approach to leadership. Help her sharpen and refine it but don’t try to change it. Hundreds of studies on gender and leadership show that women tend to adopt a leadership style described as transformational and participative. In their relationships with team members, women leaders tend to be more empathic, patient, and inclined to put others first. When it comes to decision-making, women tend to be more inclusive and thoughtful about the impact of their decisions on others. Moreover, women are more inclined to use praise and to define winning in the plural; teams are credited with success, not individuals. Guys have got to champion these leadership strategies, not undermine them.

Second, never make her choose between being liked and respected in her role as leader. Obviously, this is a choice men rarely have to make. Remind her that she can be an excellent leader and be herself when compassion, caring, and collaboration are key elements of her style at work.

Finally guys, watch, listen and learn! If her leadership approach is working for her, get busy championing her, squash efforts by others to undermine her, and watch closely, there’s a good chance you’ll learn a thing or two about terrific leadership!


Brad Johnson and David Smith are professors in the department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy and authors of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (2016: Bibliomotion). Click here to purchase a copy.