I’ve worked with a lot of inspiring and powerful women over the years. In the process, I discovered that they’re not always like what you think. They aren’t perfect, they haven’t skated past hardship, and they don’t pull others down. The reality is much different than the assumptions people can make about them. Also, while many of the most influential women I’ve known are in traditional positions of power, many are not. Influence can come from plenty of places and diverse levels in organizations.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons from working with them. Here are seven key lessons that have stuck with me.
1. Powerful women aren’t perfect (and don’t try to be)
In fact, they wear their imperfections with pride. Contrary to the self-help industry (which encourages people to root out their flaw), the powerful women I’ve worked with embrace the things about themselves that are imperfect. This doesn’t mean they make excuses. They’re self-aware enough to know where they need to improve—but they’re selective about what they try to change. Rather than continually being in a state of dissatisfaction with themselves, they’re optimistic and intentional about making improvements while still moving forward confidently with things they can’t change. As my friend Maisie says about her too-loud laugh and her emerging wrinkles, “You just have to own it.”
2. Powerful women aren’t ruthless
But they are relentless. The most brilliant women I know strive for excellence in themselves and with the teams and organizations they lead. They’re always learning; they make things happen and inspire action. When they see opportunities for the system to improve, they do something about it, rather than staying complacent or shirking responsibility for progress. However, while they’re relentless about seeking the best outcomes, they’re not ruthless with people. They don’t step on others, and they don’t hurt those who are in their way.
3. Powerful women are not aggressive
They are determined. Far from pursuing a bull-headed take-no-prisoners approach, the most powerful women are strong-minded and resolute without compromising relationships. They recognize that others will have different perspectives than them, so they listen and persuade rather than preach. Powerful women are convincing because they are open to hearing diverse points of view, incorporating them, learning from them, and making the best decisions as a result. They tell it like it is, but they do it with respect for others’ ideas.
4. Powerful women aren’t above the fray
Women with influence are those who are willing to get their hands dirty. They’re eager to help set up the room for the conference or crunch the numbers in the Excel document. While their primary responsibilities may be elsewhere, if someone needs their help, they are not above lending a hand while still leaving room for others to do their own jobs.
5. Powerful women aren’t arrogant
Instead, they are confident. The most inspiring women I’ve worked with have a strong point of view, but don’t believe it’s the only one. They are smart but know they don’t have everything figured out, and they ask for help when they need it. They are appropriately humble and listen and learn from others. There is a saying in Texas: “The smallest dog barks the loudest.” The strongest and most influential women aren’t boastful, and they have nothing to prove because their talent speaks for itself.
6. Powerful women don’t prioritize work above all else
They embrace activities outside of work as well. The most effective women have appropriate boundaries. While they work hard and often invest plenty of hours on the job, they also have a life. They make time for friends, family, and hobbies. The most effective women recognize that all work makes them dull and that a full life gives them more energy to be their best at work.
7. Powerful women don’t pull others down
One of the greatest lessons from the most inspiring women is that there is enough to go around. As a result, they don’t need to guard their power or maintain distance from others. They connect, reach out, mentor, offer advice, and share the goodies with others around them. They do this over time—maintaining relationships even when situations change. Rather than depleting their influence, this openness to others seems to multiply their impact. I’ll never forget something my friend Kay said about our mutual friend Linda: “Once a friend of Linda’s, always a friend of Linda’s.” Linda never forgot friends. Even when she moved on to other roles, she kept in touch—helping, sharing, and connecting—no matter the distance.
Ultimately, powerful women don’t avoid failure. Instead, they’ve learned from their missteps. They are capable, resilient, and they persevere. They have grit, passion, and perseverance for their long-term goals.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.