Women in Leadership

STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE: Opportunities and Challenges for Women in Leadership

Susan H. McDaniel, Ph.D., ABPP and Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., ABPP

 “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Bill Gates

The two of us have traveled similar paths, having met in Houston when Susan was a postdoc in family therapy and Nadine was a practicum student in child psychology.  Since then, we’ve both:  taken on leadership roles in academic health centers (Susan as a Division Chief in Psychiatry and an Associate Chair of Family Medicine, Nadine as Vice Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Chief Psychologist at Grady Hospital).  We both did national leadership training:  Nadine following Susan in the HHS Primary Care Policy Fellowship, and Susan following Nadine in the Executive Leadership program for women in Academic Medicine (ELAM).  We have both been active for years in APA governance:  Nadine is now the President of APA, Susan is on the Board of Directors and running for President.  Susan has built a career developing primary care psychology, Nadine has focused on suicide and family violence research, psychology education and training, and family psychology.  Both are experienced journal editors. Both have much experience with the internal and external barriers to women in leadership roles of all kinds.

Answering the phone:

“This is Dr. McDaniel.”

“Can I leave a message for Dr. McDaniel?”

“No, this is SHE.  How can I help you?”

How many of us have had this experience? When we started working in our respective academic health centers in the 80s, there were few women, and we were almost always assumed to be secretaries.  How do we move from there to here—an era when many women want to “lean in,” step up to the plate, and provide leadership to their organizations?

Women often have good interpersonal skills and high emotional intelligence.  That’s how we were raised.  These are VERY helpful in leadership roles.  However, there are plenty of other skills we must learn to be good leaders.  Many women can come to the work world expecting that, like in their childhood, they will be rewarded for being good girls and not causing trouble.  Unfortunately, at least in academic health centers, this behavior often results in taking the woman’s skills for granted rather than developing her abilities and maximizing her contributions.

We will address some of these challenges in this article, starting with assessing the alignment of the system with the woman’s goals, then reviewing issues of power and dependency in leadership, and concluding with conflict management skills.  This treatment is only an appetizer in a very rich meal; we hope you will consider some of the references for more in-depth treatment of these subjects.


Opportunities for leadership can arise in planful or unexpected ways.  One key consideration is the alignment of the mission, values, and culture of the institution with your own.  We find it very useful, as a first task, to write a personal mission statement.  Most of us have participated in writing mission statements for our department or organization.  Spend 20-30 minutes writing one for yourself.  Whenever we’re making difficult decisions about priorities, we return to our personal mission statements and ask what is most important in achieving our personal goals.  Not who will we please, or will we be good for the job, but is it in line with what we care about most?  Is it how we want to spend our energy, our precious time?  Personal mission statements are also useful to read just before going into a difficult meeting.  They ground us in our commitments, and help to quell the reactivity so common to our species.  They also evolve over time, and are worthy of rewriting annually.

After writing a personal mission statement, the next step is to assess the psychological health of the organization for which you may become a leader (McDaniel, Bogdewic, Holloway, & Hepworth, 2008).  Does it have a clear mission and identified goals?  How do these match with your own?

More generally, do its leaders communicate clear expectations for its workers?  Does it have a mentoring system and foster career success?  Are its resources aligned with its stated priorities?  Does it conduct formative reviews?  Does it acknowledge employee value and contributions?  Do leaders have strategies to help individuals having difficulty?  Does it afford latitude for employees with changing life events?  Does it have fair and systematic mechanisms for dealing with disruptive behavior?

Power and Dependency

Leadership, by definition, means confronting issues of power and dependency.  The American Heritage Dictionary lists four definitions of power, the first being  “the ability or capacity to act or perform effectively.” Not until the 4th definition do we get to “the ability or official capacity to exercise control or authority.”  It is this definition that implies domination, and can be problematic for clinicians in relation to patients and other team members.  The antidote to power as domination is shared power, or caring.  Caring consists of being present, listening, demonstrating a willingness to help, and an ability to understand–people talking with each other rather than to each other, interactions based on a foundation of respect and empowerment (McDaniel & Hepworth, 2003).  Sometimes that means finding out the behaviors that the other person experiences as respectful or empowering, or reporting on behaviors we appreciate.

The sociology of superordinates tells us that there are predictable feelings and behaviors experienced by those higher in the hierarchy, as well as by those perceived as lower (Goode, 1980).  In particular, those higher tend to experience their position in terms of feeling burdened and responsible rather than powerful, blessed or lucky.  Those lower can feel that their talents or accomplishments go unrecognized. They can be vulnerable to feeling invisible, unappreciated, disrespected, and eventually, resentful.  Understanding these dynamics can help to provide appropriate support to leaders or followers, and move the culture towards one of collaborative respect.

Conflict Management

Effectively managed conflict promotes cooperation and builds healthier and more positive relationships (Coleman, Deutsch, & Marcus, 2014). Conflict management refers to using strategies that moves the conflict toward resolution without escalation or destruction of relationships.  A strong overall approach to conflict management includes an appreciation that conflicts are complex and thus require differential tactics of management based upon the people involved, the situation, and the style of the parties. It entails thoughtful consideration of the myriad sources of conflict (e.g., misunderstandings and miscommunications, fear, failure to establish boundaries, negligence, need to be right, mishandling differences in the past, hidden agendas, and the intention to harm or retaliate). Conflict management efforts must involve a detailed analysis (i.e., scientific approach) of the facts of the situation and attention to the feelings and perceptions of the parties.

The first step to managing a conflict is identifying the critical issues related to the situation, as well as associated organizational, personal, and cultural factors. Encourage each party to ask him/herself a series of questions, such as “how does my behavior contribute to the dynamics? What elements of the situation am I able and willing to change? What matters most to me/to the other party in the situation?”. If you are a party to the conflict ask yourself these questions.

Finally, take a clear and direct, but respectful and caring approach to addressing a conflict. It is critical that you define the situation in terms of a problem that calls for a solution (Fisher, Ury, & Patton, 2011).  All parties must acknowledge their feelings and acknowledge the feelings of the other(s).  Then ask for specific behavior change and hear the behavior change requests of the other party(ies).  This involves being  clear about the outcome you want, accepting what you can get, giving up on having to be right, and demonstrating your willingness to hear the other party’s perspective and to work collaboratively. Following this, share what you are willing to do to improve the situation and strive to do your best to make these changes.

In conclusion, women bring many talents to leadership.  Like other important decisions in life, it takes courage to “step up to the plate” but it is also a rewarding opportunity to serve.  We all need ongoing coaching and feedback regarding challenges related to defining our personal mission; ensuring its alignment with the institution, agency or organization; and managing issues of power, dependency, and conflict.  We need your talents in this time of transition!


Coleman,P.T.,  Deutsch, M., & Marcus, E.C. (2014). The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice (3rd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Fisher, R., Ury, W.L., & Patton, B. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. New York: Penguin Books.

Goode W.T. (1980). Why men resist.  Dissent27(2), 287-310.

McDaniel, S.H., Bogdewic, S., Holloway, R., & Hepworth, J. (2008). Architecture of Alignment: Leadership and the Psychological Health of Faculty. In: T.R. Cole, T.J. Goodrich, and E.R. Gritz (Eds.) Academic Medicine in Sickness and in Health: Scientists, Physicians, and the Pressures of Success.  Humana Press, pp 55-72.

McDaniel, S.H. & Hepworth, J. ( 2003). Family psychology in primary care: Managing issues of power and dependency through collaboration.  In: R. Frank, S.H. McDaniel. J. Bray, M. Heldring (Eds.), Primary Care Psychology.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Publications