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A Four-Tiered Look at Leadership

The women: Rebecca Thorman, 24, is the executive director of Madison MAGNET, an organization dedicated to attracting and retaining young leaders in Wisconsin, and blogger for Modite. Alexandra Levitt, 31, is the author of They Don’t Teach Corporate in College, and blogger for Water Cooler Wisdom. Sandy Lish, 43, is the principal/founder of the Castle Group, a public relations firm that is ranked as a top-100 woman-led business in Massachusetts. Peggy Klaus, 54, is a Fortune 500 communication and leadership coach and the author of BRAG!.

What do you think defines a leader?

Lish: Someone who is not afraid to make a decision and is willing to try and do things more than one way.

Levitt: She has a clear vision of the big picture and is able to inspire others to work in pursuit of that vision.

Thorman: A leader sees an opportunity, or defines a vision, shares it with others, and goes for it.

Klaus: Whether an administrative assistant or the CEO, good leadership involves envisioning a better future while motivating others to do their best in the present. Strong leaders exhibit a combination of warmth and strength, compassion, risk taking, and accountability.

How do you think your generation’s concept of female leadership either differs or mirrors what previous generations thought about female leadership?

Levitt: In the past, women leaders in the Traditionalist and Baby Boomer generations were expected to act like men–aggressive and emotionally hard–in order to be successful. My generation (X) and the generation that follows (Y) are more amenable to leveraging and showcasing women’s unique talents in the workplace. Women leaders who are able to let their guard down and show their nurturing side are respected by today’s twenty and thirty-somethings.

Klaus: Our initial vision of female leadership was to look and act like men. We wore drab pant suits and silly little blouses with ribbon ties. As women coming of age in the late 60s, we were thankful to get a job at all. We had few role models of women in the workplace, so we started out by adopting the masculine style of command-and-control leadership.

What are some of the challenges you have personally encountered as a female leader?

Lish: The balancing act–trying to be the perfect vendor, spouse, and parent, which just can’t all be done at once.

Klaus: I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to please everyone. Consequently, I put up with a lot of unacceptable behavior and worried that if I didn’t act “nice,” they’d call me a “bitch.” At 40, I finally got smart and went from the adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” to “If you don’t have anything nice to say, just say it nice and loud.”

Levitt: Self-promotion is a big one. As a woman, my tendency is to be modest and to downplay my achievements, but if people don’t know what you’re capable of, they won’t be as helpful in getting you to the next level.

What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?

Thorman: Don’t take things personally.

Levitt: Take the time to learn your trade from someone more experienced first. Many people in my generation and in the Y generation want to go out and launch their own businesses right away, but as they say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Klaus: You don’t need to be everyone’s best friend—that’s what dogs are for. There’s no such thing as work-life balance, only trade-offs.

Lish: It’s important to know that you can’t be perfect at everything. Sometimes you are going to miss a step–and that’s OK.

Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the future of women leaders in the workplace?

Klaus: I’m very optimistic. Women today are far more self-aware. They’re asking for advice and finding mentors earlier in their careers. I’m also encouraged by the number of women I meet who are taking the bull by the horns and adjusting work to meet their life goals, whatever those might be.

Thorman: I’m optimistic because I am in a position of leadership, and every day that I work towards change makes me see the value in stepping out.

Lish: Very optimistic–I see a lot happening with the women in the business community here in Boston. They are making things happen with each other. It’s very inspiring.

Levitt: Very optimistic. With the forthcoming labor shortage brought on by the Baby Boomers’ exodus into retirement, there will be major opportunities for young women to step up and claim leadership positions.

Who is your role model of female leadership?

Thorman: I grew up watching Oprah after school, and listening to Ani DiFranco. Through their words, as well as the example set by my mother, I learned the value of being yourself, of transparency and honesty, and of standing up for the causes and issues you believe in.

Lish: Andrea Silbert, a friend of mine since kindergarten, who ran for Lt. Governor of Massachusetts. Also, a lot of my close girlfriends are role models and inspirations for how to deal with the everyday challenges of being a woman in a position of power.

Levitt: Nancy Ruscheinski, the President of Edelman, a global communications firm, Midwest, and I have worked together for some time. A married mother of twins, Nancy has never sacrificed family time even as her career has skyrocketed.

Klaus: Bobbi Silten, who leads the Gap Foundation—the charitable arm of Gap Inc. A wonderful example of someone who masterfully combines hard and soft skills, Bobbi is warm, compassionate, honest, funny, and curious. She leads by example and is constantly finding ways to improve herself and those around her by drawing on years of experience in former positions, including a stint as president of Dockers for Levi Strauss & Co. in the U.S.

Seligson is a New York-based journalist and the author of New Girl on the Job: Advice from the Trenches (Citadel, 2007).