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.

How Great Mentors Start Strong with Mentees

mentoringWhat makes some mentorship pairings take off, quickly becoming transformative developmental relationships, while others simply wither on the vine? This question often vexes mentoring program organizers. Even when a mentor and mentee appear ideally suited on paper, even when both claim real interest in the relationship, perhaps even sitting through a mentorship training session, some relationships never get off the blocks. Although most people report a preference for organically evolved (informal) mentorships, informally-developed relationships are less frequent. Organizations have learned that simply waiting for “nature to take its course,” for pairs to form informally, results in lower rates of employee mentorship. Therefore, more organizations attempt to launch mentorships through some formal strategy for pairing, training, and supporting mentor-mentee pairs. When a mentoring relationship has a formal “start date,” there are a few things effective mentors do to insure that those connections succeed. Here are two of the keys to starting your mentorship strong: be there and discern the dream.

Once the initial buzz and excitement of a formal mentoring program’s launch begins to fade it is easy for both parties to get sidetracked and bogged down by the tyranny of busy schedules and deadlines. As weeks slip by, well-intended mentors forget to reach out to mentees. Scheduled mentoring meetings get canceled or pushed-back by the latest emergency. Mentees may feel reluctant to “bother” their busy mentors and so resort to passive waiting for the mentor’s initiative.

There is a striking and consistent finding in research that compares the distinguishing characteristics of successful versus unsuccessful mentor matches in organizational mentoring programs: Those pairs that actually get together frequently during the first several months of the program tend to connect, hit it off, and go on to develop productive and enjoyable mentorships. This finding supports a fundamental principle from decades of social psychology research. When two people see each other and interact frequently (proximity) they grow to like each other more and increasingly enjoy their interactions. In other words, mere exposure to your mentor or mentee is likely to fuel your relationship during those precarious early months. Proximity and exposure help mentors and mentees bond.

You may get together in-person (ideal and preferred), or via some combination of face-to-face meeting, teleconference, or phone conversation; whatever your communication modalities, the secret it to make those meetings a top priority. Mentors, be sure to reach out reliably and consistently! Your mentee may feel like an imposter—somehow unworthy of bothering someone of your stature in the organization. Silence or absence on your part may erroneously communicate disinterest or disappointment on your part. Mentees, be sure to reach out reliably and consistently! Your mentor may be swamped, scattered, and/or new to the mentor role. Put aside your concern about being a “pest” and get on the phone or send an email. Prompt your mentor to schedule that next meeting or ask a question about your career or the organization to get the mentor thinking about you again. Engaged mentees—squeaky wheels—do get more mentoring.

In addition to being there, excellent mentors understand the critical importance of working early and often to understand their mentee’s fledgling career dream. In a famous study of adult development, psychologist Daniel Levinson and his colleagues determined that young adults in any profession or discipline begin to formulate a still-hazy sense of who they may become and what they might achieve in their lives and careers. Levinson called this underdeveloped and vague sense of self in the adult (professional) world the dream. The dream may have the quality of a vision or an imagined possibility that generates excitement and vitality in a mentee. It is the early career mentor who must nourish this dream in the mentee and set the mentee into creative flight, affirming the exciting possibilities while tempering idealism with the wisdom of experience.

Mentors, one of the more important things you can do for your mentees is to “listen” for hints and clues to your mentee’s fledgling aspirations. Remember that your mentees’ career/life dream may feel fuzzy and shapeless, even to them. Mentees need us to take time to get to know them, to ask the right questions about what they love doing and where they imagine their career might take them. They need us to listen carefully, to gently paraphrase what we hear, and in so doing, help them give form and bring clarity to their dream.

To make the job more challenging, mentees are often reluctant to give voice to career aspirations that may feel grandiose and unreachable. Most of us feel anxious early in our careers, often questioning our own competence, feeling like an imposter among accomplished senior colleagues. Yes, we imagine thrilling career trajectories but we also harbor hidden doubts about whether we have what it takes. When a mentor asks us what we’d like to do in our careers, we can freeze up, feeling self-conscious and reluctant to risk embarrassment by revealing ambitions that sound farfetched even to our own ears.

Mentors: It is your job to help your mentee overcome these barriers to forming, articulating, and pursuing the dream. Take time to meet with your mentees and when you do, listen carefully to discern their unique talents, inclinations, and interests. When you decipher glimmers of the dream, help your mentees express it in their own words and then affirm their vision like crazy! When a mentor both communicates and demonstrates faith in the mentee’s ability, the mentee is more likely to trust the mentor and believe the dream may be within grasp.

Mentees: Use your mentoring relationship to actively explore and then discuss your ideal—“perfect world”—career dream. If everything in your personal and professional life were to come together seamlessly, how would it look? What jobs might you have along the way? What would the dream job look like (at least, from your current vantage point)? Be bold and think through these questions out loud and in the presence of your mentor. That’s what mentoring is for!


Brad Johnson, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at the U. S. Naval Academy, a Faculty Associate at Johns Hopkins University, and an expert on mentoring relationships. His latest books include Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (with David Smith); The Elements of Mentoring (with Charles Ridley) and On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty.