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What Good, Gender Neutral, Leadership in Tech Looks Like

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WomensMedia, Contributor

June 10, 2014

By Lisa Serwin

Over the past few years, a flurry of news stories has cropped up zeroing in on high-profile tech leaders. Would you rather have Mark Zuckerberg as a boss, or Marissa Mayer? Sheryl Sandberg or Jeff Bezos? Now that tech CEOs are modern day rock stars, it’s easy to get caught up in their mythos, and wonder what it would be like to work for them. That’s all well and good, but there’s a strain of this discussion I find puzzling: a theme I’ll call “gendered leadership.”

I’m a tech CEO myself, working in—you guessed it—the Bay Area. So I often hear about the merits of not just individual bosses, but their maleness or femaleness. As both a tech exec and a feminist, I’m thrilled whenever I hear about the career advancement of women in our field. But I’m also concerned that media—not to mention we the reader—may be trivializing things a bit when we laud the “womanly” style of a female CEO. Is she a great listener? That’s because she’s a woman! A star multitasker? Chalk it up to the demands of a working mom!

I believe that in all cases, our leadership styles are born of life experiences that mold us into the people we are today. Male bosses can be great listeners and multitask with compassion and grace. Female bosses can be ruthless, strong, competitive, and a host of other qualities we stereotypically associate with positive male leadership. So for those of us working in the tech industry, I propose we shift our attention from defining male versus female leadership, and ask instead, “What does good leadership in tech look like?”

Drawing from my own time leading AppMedicine, which provides asynchronous electronic visits between healthcare providers and their patients, and my years observing numerous gifted tech leaders, I have identified four qualities common to great leaders regardless of gender:

1.  Passion

Here, I mean passion for your product, your company mission, and your people. Do you lie awake at night thinking about your product and how it can be improved—the individuals who work for you—and your customers? Great leaders have a mental, emotional zest for their work that doesn’t kick in when they walk into the office each morning, but drives their entire professional, and sometimes personal, life. 

I’d also include a passion for the job of CEO specifically. With the exception of some CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, most of us in tech leadership roles didn’t start out as CEO: we worked our way up either through the company, or through a variety of posts that got us to where we are today. Passion for that type of role—which obviously comes with extreme focus and determination, not to mention some tough sacrifices—is what drove us here, and that same passion will rally your team, interest investors, motivate your customers, and drive you forward on the days when getting out of bed is a chore.

2.  Fortitude

Leaders in tech, especially start-ups—which, let’s face it, still has the air of the Wild West—are faced with second-guessers, cynics and vocal critics every single day, on all fronts. From competitors to colleagues, subordinates to board members, tech bosses constantly hear this question: “Are you sure?” 

I can’t tell you how many times my strategies have been questioned. Why? Because every CEO’s strategy is questioned. There is incredible value to being an open-minded listener, but if the internal compass guiding you waivers with every skeptic in the room, your leadership will crumble.

That’s why the most effective tech CEO’s I know value fortitude, both around their chosen strategies and their hard work. These leaders possess a profound sense of responsibility for their company, their people, and their investors. Chances are, they’ve taken them into account with each and every one of their decisions. They weigh feedback carefully, and once a decision has been reached, it’s done. This level of vision not only steers the company in a clear direction, it encourages transparency and trust with employees at every level.

3.  Visibility

Strong tech leaders don’t just make themselves visible—they call out good leadership when they see it.

This trait can take the form of mentorship or networking. Either way, confident leaders don’t suffer from “dictator syndrome,”  i.e., constantly feeling like their regime is under threat from flashy new up-and-comers (an insecurity very common in tech!). Rather, they help organize conferences with fellow CEO’s, speak on panels with other industry leaders, and publicly recognize company employees for a job well done.

Now, on the question of gender, don’t get me wrong: I’d love to see women tech leaders double in number by 2015. But, I don’t think the solution is focusing on the present dearth. Instead, let’s highlight the trailblazers who are here, regardless of gender. And, while we’re at it, let’s open the aperture of our focus to amazing tech leaders in general, man or woman. It’s possible to at once celebrate women in this field while continuing to move beyond overly gendered conceptions of what makes someone good at their job.

4.  Communication

It’s called the golden rule for a reason. Treating others the way you want to be treated—with warmth, respect, humility, and a healthy dose of humor—is a trait common to each and every outstanding tech CEO I know.

You know that feeling you get when you’re talking with someone, and they make you feel like you’re the only person in the room? That’s the magic I’m talking about here: the simple, but increasingly rare, ability to tune in, engage, and truly be present in a conversation. And, just like passion, it’s one quality that doesn’t come with an on/off switch. These people have cultivated the habit of putting gadgets away, looking their companions in the eye, and granting their full, undivided attention. Such an easy task, and yet, in a culture amplified by zingy gadgets designed to create more ways to connect, we paradoxically exist in a bubble of over stimulation breeding unsatisfying human interaction. Authentic connection free of distraction has become, more than ever, an invaluable, noteworthy commodity.

So for leaders in tech (or any field), here is my parting piece of advice: bring energy to your communication that sustains itself, both on and off the clock. Don’t feel like you have to be a superhero at work, leaving you worn out and depleted for friends and family once you step out of  the office. Find a holistic, sustainable balance with your communicative output, so that your personal relationships not only survive but actually benefit from your single-mindedness.  Your loved ones will appreciate it.

Lisa Serwin, CEO of AppMedicine, is focusing on building software that improves patient/provider interaction and increases access to medical services.

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