It's time we all lead like a woman

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Stereotypical feminine traits, such as empathy and selflessness, are also the characteristics of a great leader, writes the creative director of DDB San Francisco.

If I had a dollar for every time a new client or colleague said, "I expected Sam Brown to be a man…," I could have bought myself a very nice gift by now. The thing is, I’m not offended when people think that "Sam Brown, our creative director" is a guy. I actually like it, but probably not for the reason you think.

I’m sure most women in advertising have tales similar to mine. Throughout my career, I’ve learned everything I know about leadership from men. As a creative, practically every one of my associate creative directors, creative directors and executive creative directors have been male. I’ve only ever had one female CD and I knew she was a rare bird. Therefore it’s not crazy that most would assume by my name that I’m a man—or that I might even be expected to work like one. But who’s to say that just because we female creative directors are rare, we should be expected to work like our male counterparts do and not the other way around?

As if proving this point to myself, I was sitting in a meeting recently and suddenly realized it was all female. And I noticed it. Really noticed it.

However, I noticed it not because we were all women in varying roles of leadership, but rather because of how we interacted with one another. No one felt the need to speak louder or more aggressively than anyone else. No one commandeered the conversation. Everyone in the room (and on that wretched polygon phone) had a voice. Every idea was evaluated rationally, pushed and pressure-tested without personal, ulterior motives. Perhaps above all, we all felt a shared responsibility for the project and appreciation for each other’s efforts. Every woman in that meeting was respected and valued for the talent and skill she brought to the table.

If you were asked to describe the characteristics of a woman, you might say that she listens. That she’s understanding and supportive. She’s passionate, empathetic, expressive and selfless, characteristics we should celebrate this International Women's Day. And while all of these traits are stereotypically feminine, they’re also the characteristics of a great leader. Don’t believe me? When you’ve finished reading this brilliant article, check out John Gerzema’s talk on his book "The Athena Doctrine." (Spoiler alert: He interviewed 64,000 people from around the globe and 64,000 people also believe these qualities are those of a good leader.)

And so do I. When I mentioned before that throughout my career I carefully watched my CDs and tried to emulate some of the characteristics I thought helped them succeed, what I didn’t mention was which characteristics I tried to embrace as my own. I count myself lucky to have worked for and with many talented, male leaders in our industry who have listened to me, encouraged me and supported me throughout the years. But they all exhibited what we would consider stereotypically feminine traits.

I think women today have made leaps and bounds in the industry called advertising. Is it a 50/50 landscape yet? Not even close: Only 11 percent of CDs today are female. Do we still have to fight for equal pay, equal responsibilities and respect? You bet we do: According to the 3 Percent Conference’s "Elephant on Madison Avenue" 2016 survey, "Only one in four women in advertising feel they have had the same opportunities as men in their profession." And a great number of us women continue to raise our voices, sometimes literally, to shoulder our way into territories previously reserved for men.

I believe to my core that a good leader is someone who is patient and supportive enough to help push you further than you thought you could go. A good leader’s superpower is empathy; he or she is someone you can go to for advice or guidance. There will always be times in advertising when a strong voice and opinion are needed in the room. But if you just thought of a man when you read that sentence, then perhaps you should start at the top and reread this article.

I don’t mind if my name causes confusion as to whether I am a man or a woman. What matters is that as a creative leader I listen, show empathy, and support my clients and creative teams. What matters is that I embrace my feminine characteristics to be as good a leader as I can be.

—Sam Brown is creative director of DDB San Francisco. 

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