How to Be a Human Leader

A collection of highly successful women have some tips for developing that most fundamental and crucial of skills: speaking up.

"Fearless Girl," facing the Charging Bull on Lower Broadway in New York (AP / Mark Lennihan)

Here is a very impressive group of women: Jean Case. Rabia Chaudry. Rochelle Keyhan. Joanne Lipman. Arati Prabhakar. Sandra Phillips Rogers. Gillian Tett. My Atlantic colleague Gillian White. Case is, among other things, the CEO of the Case Foundation. Chaudry is, among other things, the president of the Safe Nation Collaborative. Phillips Rogers is the group vice president, general counsel, and chief legal officer of Toyota Motor North America. The list goes on. On Thursday evening at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic—in a conversation moderated by Pamela Reeves, gender advisor to Melinda Gates (and the wife of Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief)—they gathered to share stories of challenge and success in an American work environment that was not designed with women in mind.

The women told tales of discrimination both overt and subtle. They discussed finding their own ways to rise above it. And at the end of the session, they offered up more concrete advice—for finding success in general, but particularly for finding it in that basic setting that can so often determine achievement across the arc of one’s career: the meeting. The place where workers in so many industries perform and, consequently, are judged.

What strategies, Reeves asked, do you use to make sure you are heard—and, by implication, impressive—in meetings?

Here were some of the women’s answers:

Amplify the voices of fellow women: The strategy of “amplification,” most famously employed by women of the Obama White House, relies on women supporting each other, collectively. It works like this, as the Washington Post explained: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”
Repeat, repeat, repeat: Foster a we’re-in-this-together sense of community in the group, for everyone involved in the meeting, by explicitly acknowledging the contributions of others. Begin a comment, for example, with something like, “Let me build on what Bill said,” and then go from there.
Use humor liberally: Tell jokes! Make things fun for people! This is generally good advice.
Set expectations for your contribution: Begin a comment by saying something like, “I have three points to make”—and then make those points systematically. It’ll make you seem organized. It’ll also make you less likely to be interrupted.
Imitate, tastefully but shamelessly: Observe who, in a meeting or other group setting, seems to get paid the most attention to by higher-ups or fellow participants. And, then, imitate those people. If their approaches—their gestures, their tone of voice, their general manner of expressing themselves—are getting them heard, mimicking those approaches should help to do the same for you.
Stand up: No, but literally. For phone meetings, in particular. This is especially helpful for tough conversations: Standing up, for one thing, you’ll feel more confident and powerful. Also, as Gillian Tett argued, your voice will literally be lower when you’re standing, giving it a boost of gravitas.
Take up space: Again, literally. In physical meetings, spread out. Lean forward when seated at a table. Own your own presence, physically and otherwise.
Be loud: Yes, literally again! Too many women, Jean Case said, speak meekly and quietly. Don’t be one of them. Speak up. Your voice, projected across the room, will also project confidence.
Don’t say “I’m sorry.” Unless you really should say you’re sorry.
Fake it ‘til you make it: If you’re feeling shy, pretend to be bold. If you’re feeling like you don’t belong, convince yourself that you do. Act. Pretend. Perform. Until soon, ideally, you’re not performing anymore. “Just fake it,” Tett said, “and then if you do it enough, you’ll start to believe it.”

It’s all extremely good advice. It’s advice, notably, that works for men as well as women who want to be seen and heard and valued. What’s also striking about these assorted workhacks, though, is the common idea that unites so many of them: Many of these tips are premised on the value of women imitating stereotypically male behavior in the workplace. Be loud. Take up space. Project gravitas. Women would be well advised, many of these expert tips are suggesting, to mold their behavior according to a paradigm that has been established by centuries’ worth of primarily male leadership, in business and beyond—a paradigm that rewards things like, say, overt confidence, and unapologetic volume, and underlying swagger.

And: The experts are entirely correct to offer that advice. If women are to be better represented in business as in other arenas of American life, they need first of all to have that proverbial and all-too-literal seat at the table. Often, the seats are allotted to those who best fit existing notions of “powerful” leadership—to the people who prove best, in the end, at swaggering. As a consequence, fake-it-’til-you-make-it isn’t merely a theme at the Aspen Ideas Festival; it is also a strategy regularly offered within the growing field that advises women on the tricky work of succeeding in business while being female. Sheryl Sandberg advocates for it (or, more precisely, for a version of it: “fake it,” she advises, “’til you feel it”). So did many of the women writing essays for Robin Romm, in the recent collection revealingly titled Double Bind: Women on Ambition. Strategic performance is a way to combat imposter syndrome; it’s also a way to ensure that women will be able, within a cultural context that hasn’t been designed for them, to align their behavior with their ambitions.

But fakery-until-makery is powerful primarily as a kind of transitional measure: It’s a means to an end. It reflects the world as it still is: a world in which stereotypes of male leadership still shape our conceptions of prowess and efficacy and success. In 2017, a group of highly successful women shared a collection of very useful tips on how to be louder and brasher and more performatively powerful. Perhaps, at an Ideas Festival years down the road, those same women, and those who follow in their path, will offer a different set of advice—workhacks reflective of an environment where women have many more seats at the table.