By Kisha D. DeSandies


Successful leaders are often asked their advice on how to excel in business management. Specifically, aspiring leaders in lower, middle and executive management levels want to know exactly what attributes they need to be an influential and effective leader.


Anne Mulcahy, CEO of Xerox, may have said it best in her book Wisdom for a Young CEO: “… I am still learning,” she said. “That is an important mark of a good leader … to know you don’t know it all and never will.”


This article will explore the inherent qualities women possess that directly translate into sound leadership in business. In addition, three dynamic women leaders — Misti Burmeister, Marilyn Carlson Nelson and Shannon Goodson — share their experiences and offer advice on how to develop strong leadership skills.


What Women Possess

According to the 2005 study The Qualities that Distinguish Women Leaders — conducted by Caliper, a personality assessment and consulting firm in Princeton, N.J. — women leaders are more assertive and persuasive, have a stronger need to get things done and are more willing to take risks than male leaders. Female leaders were also found to be more empathic and flexible, as well as stronger in interpersonal skills than their male counterparts.


If you’re a woman reading this, these findings may not be overly surprising; however, what most women don’t realize is that these qualities are key indicators of great leaders.


The study assessed the potential of more than two million applicants and employees for over 25,000 companies around the world. Four key findings show that women leaders:


  1. Are more persuasive than their male counterparts. The study revealed that women leaders possess strong people skills, enabling them to accurately assess the big picture in a situation from all sides. They can then address a subject from their audiences’ perspective so the people they lead feel more understood, supported and valued.
  2. Feel the sting of rejection, learn from adversity and carry on with an “I’ll show you” attitude. Women showed a healthy level of resilience and tended to possess strong intrapersonal skills — empathy, flexibility and sociability — which gives them the unique ability to learn and bounce back from disappointment, rejection and situations that don’t work out their way.
  3. Foster an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem solving and decision making. The final decision does not have to be a female leader’s initial point of view. The women leaders in the study were more interested in hearing all points of view, than in making the best possible decision.
  4. Are more likely to ignore rules and take risks. Study participants scored significantly lower than male leaders in adhering to established procedures and cautiousness. However, they did score high in abstract reasoning. This gives them a greater propensity for coming up with innovative solutions.

    Burmeister, Goodson and Nelson have all written books on effective leadership.


    From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations

    By Misti Burmeister


    The Psychology of Sales Call Reluctance

    By Shannon L. Goodson


    How We Lead Matters: Reflections on a Life of Leadership

    Marilyn Carlson Nelson

“These personality qualities combine to create a leadership profile that is much more conducive to today’s diverse workplace,” said Herb Greenberg, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Caliper. “We should emphasize that the male leaders in this study were also exceptional in these areas, but the women leaders set a new standard.”


Three Pictures of Leadership

As stated in the Caliper study, women are resourceful and natural relationship builders. However, women sometimes minimize these and other useful assets to “play with the boys.” Three women — each at different stages in their careers — explain their own experiences and tell how women can harvest their leadership qualities.


  • Misti Burmeister is CEO of Inspirion Inc., Fairfax, Va., a consulting firm committed to helping organizations and professionals reach their potential. She started her business four years ago with only $37 in her bank account after she quit an unfulfilling job. Burmeister sought to help organizations and individuals enhance their leadership skills and now coaches Fortune 500 companies and government agencies to help them align staff with their organizations’ vision and mission — and ensure success in recruiting and retaining diverse talent across generations.
  • Marilyn Carlson Nelson is chairman of the Board of Carlson Companies in Minneapolis, Minn. (the parent company of Radisson, Regent, Country Inns & Suites, Carlson Wagonlit Travel and T.G.I. Friday’s). She has been named one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report, and Forbes magazine regularly selects her as one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.”
  • Shannon Goodson is co-founder and president of Behavioral Sciences Research Press in Dallas, Texas, which she and her business partner grew from a one-room operation to a growing research network of professional associates in 30 countries. Goodson — a psychotherapist, author and researcher—is a 30-year expert on women in the business world. She has published scholarly articles and presented scientific papers dealing with women in management and sales, psychological testing and other topics.

These women took three different roads to leadership. Burmeister did not set out to own her own business. About 10 years ago, she started a leadership program for first-generation, low-income minority women of non-traditional age (mostly 40-50 years old) at The Stryker Institute for Leadership Development on the campus of the University of Northern Colorado.


“I taught leadership from a text book and they taught me the reality of what a real leader is,” said Burmeister, who noted that many women in her program were migrant workers raising their kids.


She later moved to Washington, D.C. and found herself at a crossroads when she abruptly quit a less-than-challenging government contracting job. Low on funds in a big city, Burmeister spent the next six months conducting more than 150 informational interviews to finally discover her passion — generational diversity in the workplace. These interviews led to new clients and $250,000 in revenue in her first two years of business.


“I didn’t come from an entrepreneurial background, but I am an achievement-oriented person,” she said. “I needed to do something while I was hoping to find a full-time job with benefits — and ended up with my own gig.”


Nelson, whose career has spanned more than 40 years, has seen the role of women in business greatly evolve. Early in her career, she worked as a securities analyst at a major brokerage firm. She said challenges in the workplace are both external and internal.


“I was asked to sign my stock recommendations with my initials ‘M.C. Nelson’ because it was felt that no one — a.k.a men — would take the recommendations of a woman,” Nelson said. “Then one day I was told I would get my own office. You can imagine my elation until I learned that it was because I was pregnant and I needed to be ‘out of sight.’”


In 1998, Nelson’s father appointed her to take his place as president and CEO of Carlson Companies.


“It’s when you take that big step into the leadership role that the challenges within really begin,” Nelson said. Under her leadership, the firm’s system-wide sales nearly doubled to $40 billion. She served as CEO until March of this year and remains the chairman of the Board.


“It’s important that you have a good sense of what you’re taking on before you accept the job,” Nelson added. Be careful that you want to ‘do’ as much as you want to ‘be.’ It’s wonderful to have a big title, but you have to want to actually do the job so it’s important that you understand the responsibilities and expectations and what the trade-offs might be.”


When Goodson started her business in 1979, she was 27 years old with no business management experience.


“I made a lot of mistakes during the early years,” she said. “Early on, like many entrepreneurs, I believed that if I worked hard and delivered a great product, then people would beat a path to my door. I soon learned that I was going to fail if I continued on this path. I may have had great products and services, but I also needed to promote them by stepping out and making myself visible.”


Goodson relied on colleagues, business associates and clients to build her leadership skills. She also joined an organization for CEO’s of small- to medium-sized businesses, which she said proved to be invaluable. However, Goodson said she still has internal challenges.


“As a research scientist, I’ve had to confront my own fears about self-promotion when it came time to publicize my work,” she said. “Even after nearly 30 years in the spotlight, I still get butterflies in my stomach before public appearances. But I know that if I want to earn what I am worth, I have to practice what I preach.”


The Makings of a Good Leader

Here’s what each of these women has to say about what makes a good leader:


Burmeister: A leader must be willing to step into the responsibility and role of being the boss. However, leadership is often a walk in humility. Even though you are in charge, you have to know you’re not always right. A lot of leaders ask questions, but very few listen. As a leader, you have to authentically listen.


Great leaders understand that it is human nature to attract team members who are like them and consciously choose otherwise. They seek diversity in many forms because they know diversity creates opportunity. Conflict is considered an important part of their team, as it results in better ideas. To facilitate this, leaders must have the capacity to question their own assumptions about people and things.


Great leaders also set a clear vision and communicate it clearly. They include their team in creating and celebrating milestones towards achieving a mission. Additionally, an effective leader takes full responsibility for her success and the success of those around them. Burmeister says the top 15 attributes effective leaders have is that they:

  • Ask important questions and really listen to the answer
  • Respect people at all levels in life
  • Are knowledgeable and understanding
  • Set a clear vision
  • Hold their team accountable
  • Are patient and flexible
  • Demonstrate humility
  • Are willing to share knowledge, relationships, information, etc.
  • Are teachable
  • Take 100% responsibility for themselves and their team
  • Communicate well
  • Encourage reverse mentorship
  • Establish systems for rewarding their team
  • Are open and willing to try new things
  • Take time to create a succession plan

Nelson: During the years I served as CEO, my life frankly wasn’t as well balanced as I would have liked it to be. But that was a choice I made for that moment in time. I don’t think we can expect life to be balanced on a daily basis — perhaps not even for a period of time. Life just isn’t balanced or it would be status quo, and status quo isn’t growth.


Ultimately, your success as a leader will depend a great deal on your emotional intelligence — knowing who you are and what values will govern your decision making. Demonstrating integrity and consistency over time will build a foundation of trust that is absolutely essential if you want others to follow your lead.


A highly-regarded leader is a visionary who can “connect the dots” and articulate her vision with enough passion to inspire others to support it. These types of leaders also remain steadfast in the face of naysayers. You have to have the courage to stick with it. After all, if you have something truly unique to say or are advocating for real innovation, you will, without doubt, butt up against others who have a vested interest in the status quo.


Goodson: In my experience, I have yet to see a single, reliable or stable concept of leadership emerge. In terms of functional leadership, good leaders are people who get others to achieve corporate objectives and goals.


While effective leadership cannot be comprehensively specified, there are core competencies that all leaders have to have. These could include effective communication skills, the ability to build effective teams, the ability to manage their attention and the willingness to learn. A critical component today is the ability to build networks and relationships with people in key positions.


Leaders should be careful of their egos. When you start to believe your own press, you are in serious danger of taking yourself too seriously. Also, leaders should be mindful of deflection. You have to be able to accept a full range of objective feedback. You cannot avoid bad news or opposing views in business or play the blame game.


Kisha D. DeSandies is communications manager for the NAHB Women’s Council and editor-in-chief of Building Women magazine. E-mail her at