Women hold all sorts of positions of power these days. For example, Nancy
Pelosi is speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Angela Merkel is
chancellor of Germany, and as of January Carol Bartz is chief executive
officer (CEO) of Yahoo!, a Fortune 500 company.
What makes such women tick? What psychological traits or behaviors
contribute to their professional success or for others hinder their
Prudence Gourguechon, M.D.: "I have found an authoritative voice
[as APsaA president], but it is also strange and eerie and a way of speaking
and acting that I had never used before."
Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel
Several psychoanalysts tackled these questions at the American
Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) meeting in New York City in January at the
session "When Women Lead: Power and Authority in the
Organization." They were Prudence Gourguechon, M.D., a Chicago analyst
and president of APsaA; Laura Huggler, Ph.D., a West Bloomfield, Mich.,
analyst who consults to companies and has worked with a number of women CEOs;
and Kenneth Settel, M.D., a Brookline, Mass.,
Some women in leadership positions seem to naturally have what it takes to
be successful, a January 16 New York Times article about Bartz
suggested. The article described Bartz as "combative, decisive, and very
much in command" and as a person who displays "a mix of candor and
toughness." Whether Bartz is really a "natural" or whether
she had to work on her leadership style to become so successful is not clear
from this article.
What is clear, however, is that other women have to make some effort to
become successful leaders, just as some men do. Gourguechon cited herself as
an example. During the six months that she has been president of APsaA,
Gourguechon said, she has "found an authoritative voice, but it is also
strange and eerie and a way of speaking and acting that I had never used
Laura Huggler, Ph.D., a Michigan psychoanalyst, is a consultant to
various companies and has worked with a number of female CEOs.
Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel
To illustrate the point further, Huggler described the case of a woman who
was a CEO of a nonprofit
The CEO, "Sarah," had a number of positive
qualities—"she was warm and engaging, she had an astute political
sense, and she was great at fundraising." However, when she was absent
from her office, her "staff was on the edge of mutiny," and there
was a lot of in-house fighting. Moreover, there was "Beth,"
Sarah's second-in-command. Beth was rigid and authoritative; she thought that
only she knew what was best for the operation. A "competitive
struggle" ensued between the two women. Beth grew bolder and bolder;
Sarah capitulated to her demands. Only after extensive psychotherapy did Sarah
come to realize that she unconsciously identified her dictatorial,
intimidating subordinate Beth with her own dictatorial, intimidating mother,
and only then was she able to take steps to fire Beth.
But how aggressive must women be to lead effectively? There doesn't seem to
be an easy answer to this question, Settel noted. Women leaders need to be
tough enough to confront people and to make hard decisions, yet when they
exhibit such stalwartness, they may be criticized for being brash or
showboating. Gourguechon agreed: as a woman in power, it may be hard to"
strike the right note" as far as aggression is concerned.
But are women in leadership positions at a disadvantage because, according
to popular belief, they are innately less forceful than men are? Gourguechon
doesn't think so. She believes that women are at least as combative as men
are. However, the way that women express their combativeness tends to differ
from the way men express theirs, she observed. Men tend to display theirs
through fighting, whereas women are apt to display theirs through envy or
How about maternal instincts? Do they have any place in female leadership?
Sometimes, Gourguechon contended. For example, when women leaders take a less
authoritative and more nurturing approach with their staff, it can be a
positive move. Also, Gourguechon said she views her presidency of APsaA"
as if I have a big household to run" and believes that such a
stance is an attribute for the job.
However, a maternal instinct that women in power need to subdue,
Gourguechon cautioned, is the impulse to always respond to the needs of
others. In other words, they need to grow out of the Girl Friday role, where
they are everybody's favorite person for getting the work done, and to learn
how to delegate responsibility. ▪