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  • Donna Richardson, CEC, ACC

Lessons from Goldilocks about women's leadership presence



Maybe you’ve heard about Goldilocks.


She is the little girl who went for a walk in the forest, came to a house and decided to go inside. Once inside, she saw and tried three bowls of porridge. One was too hot, one was too cold, and the other was just right. She tried sitting in three chairs. One was too soft, one was too hard, and the other…well, you know how it goes.


The concepts within this simple children’s story—what and how much is just right—have come to be known as the Goldilocks Effect (or Syndrome or Principle) by researchers studying everything from artificial intelligence to body metabolism to infant auditory attention.


As it turns out, Goldilocks—and a few other experts—have lessons to share with women about developing their leadership presence.


According to Shawn Andrews, professor at the University of California Irvine Paul Merage School of Business, “To be accepted as leaders, women often must walk a fine line between two opposing sets of expectations.” (Read: just right.) Andrews notes that institutional mindsets (e.g. gender bias and stereotyping) can present barriers to women advancing in organizations.


What is “too much” or “too little” when it comes to the behavior of women in organizations? And, what does “just right” look like?


5 tips for doing it “just right”


In their book entitled How Women Rise, Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith, discuss habits that hold women back, including the habit of using minimizing behaviours (too little) and overuse of certain other behaviours (too much).


Here are tips to overcome these behaviours.


  1. Speak clearly and confidently – Become aware of how you start a sentence or a conversation. Drop words that minimize you and what you have to say, such as “just” and “only” and “sorry.” Avoid saying, “I just need a minute of your time,” or, “If I could just make a small point....” Instead, say, “ I need a minute of your time,” or, “I would like to point out that…”

  2. Learn when to use “I” and when to use “we” – Claiming credit for accomplishments is seen as assertive behavior and, according to Helgesen and Goldsmith, women are penalized for being “too” assertive. While it is generous (and perhaps appropriate) to give credit to others, this behavior when overdone minimizes and undermines women. Avoid saying, “Oh, thanks, but it was really a team effort.” Instead, consider saying, “Thank you, I am proud of this accomplishment.” Then, if appropriate, add, “The team really pulled together on this. Bob and Susan did some creative problem solving and we were able to surpass our goal.”

  3. Be fully present and hold your space – Some aspects of leadership presence involve dressing, sounding and even standing right, but “the key component of leadership presence is the opposite of cosmetic: it lies in the capacity to be fully present,” say Helgesen and Goldsmith. Avoid multitasking, checking your phone, having side conversations, and so on. Instead, try to be fully present with those you are with, setting distractions aside, listening to hear and asking questions to understand. In other words, show up. Every day.

  4. Notice and name your emotions – When it comes to emotion, women face a double bind. If they do not show emotion, they are not conforming to cultural norms; if they are emotional, they are displaying behaviour not deemed by some as desirable for effective leadership. The issue is not feeling an emotion. But, “speaking while in the grip of strong emotion is usually a bad practice,” explain Helgesen and Goldsmith. Being self-aware and expressing emotions appropriately are core to emotional intelligence. When you feel an emotional response to a situation, try pausing before speaking. Feel and name the emotion. Emotional self-awareness coupled with appropriate emotional expression will enable you to respond confidently and authentically.

  5. Find and use the WIIFM – There is a perception—not supported by recent research— that women talk more than men. Maybe this is why women are criticized for being too talkative or over-explaining things at work, rather than getting to the point. My experience in marketing and communications has taught me there is an easy workaround for this. Before going into a meeting, for example, try identifying your 2-3 key messages—the most important things you want to get across—or 1-2 outcomes you need from a meeting. Knowing your key messages, outcomes and the time available will help you focus your communication. And, as you develop your key messages, think about the WIIFM: what’s in it for me (your listener). Not only will this help you avoid rambling on and using too many words, but it will also help you form your message from the standpoint of those who will receive it.

Dealing with others’ perceptions of being “too much” and “too little” is a challenge for women. But, finding the sweet spot is not about making a 180-degree turn, or being someone you’re not.


Effective leadership requires that we bring our best and most authentic selves to work, we play to our strengths and we strive to have a growth mindset where we are open to learning and growing.


Goldilocks had a keen sense for what was too much, too little and just right. How about you?



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Related links:


Shawn Andrews

Sally Helgesen

Marshall Goldsmith

Gender Barriers and Solutions to Leadership

How Women Rise