As an emergency physician, you are by default a leader. You lead your patients, your colleagues, and the entire ED team. As a woman, you bring unique talents to your leadership roles.

Women leaders can be successful without uniformly adopting traditional command-and-control leadership styles if they instead draw on what is unique to their experience as women.

Men are more likely than women to view leadership as a series of transactions with subordinates, and to use their position and control of resources to motivate their followers. Women, on the other hand, are far more likely to describe themselves as transforming a team. Women use their personal traits like communication, charisma, work record, and interpersonal skills to motivate others. Women leaders practice interactive leadership–trying to make every interaction with co-workers positive for all involved by encouraging participation, sharing power and information, making people feel important, and energizing them.

In general, women are expected to be supportive and cooperative, even when they are new to a position with formal authority. This may explain why women leaders tend to be more interactive than men. But interactive leadership should not be linked directly to being female, since some men use that style and some women prefer the command-and-control style. EDs that are open to leadership styles that play to individual strengths increase their chances of thriving in our fast-changing health care environment.

Below are pearls for women leaders I have collected:

  1. Recognize and promote leadership potential and talent – especially in your female colleagues!
  2. Remember that bias is often unintentional and unconscious. People need to have their blind spots illuminated in a way that they can comprehend.
  3. Pay attention to times when your leadership or authority is ignored or questioned.  It is worth the effort to take crucial issues off the emotional plane. Don’t immediately react to a negative situation or comment, unless you are especially gifted in your ability to think through the entire situation and possible repercussions in the moment. Give yourself time to think.
  4. Watch your voice tone. A high, squeaky, emotionally charged voice is unlikely to command respect. Consciously lower your voice pitch and tone when situations become tense.
  5. Observe other female leaders – watch what works/doesn’t work.  It is vitally important for women to network, establish reciprocity, and develop a close community of trustworthy colleagues.
  6. Know your own leadership gifts and style and find ways to enhance your approach.
  7. When women are working with other women “buffering” may help facilitate communication. By consciously toning down statements and using phrases like “I was wondering what would happen if… or “maybe we should consider that..,”   women can create a more even playing field where collaboration trumps hierarchical position.  Ironically, this same strategy can backfire if applied by women in traditionally male settings. Men may perceive buffering as lack of confidence. In addition, the woman’s ownership of her idea may be jeopardized if a male colleague repackages her message. Ultimately, this can lead to even further miscommunication, as the woman now feels defensive and betrayed by her colleague’s
  8. Women are more likely to be successful in their communication with male colleagues by being direct and learning appropriate techniques to self-promote and negotiate.
  9. In my opinion, nothing promotes physician leadership credibility like clinical credibility. Emergency physicians enjoy a tremendous relationship with each other, and it is the clinical arena that provides a constant source of community.  When we connect with others who share our passion for emergency medicine, we benefit and so do our patients. Keep your skills up!
  10. Give positive feedback.  Challenge yourself to give positive feedback to at least five ED colleagues/nurses every shift. Stand up for your colleagues and nurses – when they’re in the right, go to the wall for them.
  11. Don’t be afraid to be the moral leader of your team. Never tolerate pejorative language or attitudes toward patients. Call people out on this instantly. Be willing to talk without irony about the mission of the ED and the pride we all have in knowing that what we do matters.  Be willing to call out the best in yourself and your team. Be willing to give verbal reminders that we are here to serve, not judge, our patients. Acknowledge and apologize when you fail to meet your own standards.
  12. And my favorite: Have multiple tools in your tool belt. If one way of leading is not being recognized/accepted, try another approach. AAWEP is one of the best places I know to find and add skills to your leadership tool kit!


This piece originally appeared in the AAWEP Section Newsletter – July 2014: Our Best Mentors.