15 Leadership Lessons from Female Founders and CEOs

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15 Leadership Lessons from Female Founders and CEOs

When Lisa Su was 10 years old, she used to take apart her brother’s remote-control cars and put them back together.

Three decades later, the electrical engineer-turned-CEO took charge of chip maker Advanced Micro Devices as its stock plummeted. She took the company apart, put it back together, and boosted share prices by more than 1,300% in six years.

“Run toward the hardest problems,” says Su, expanding on one of her greatest life lessons. “This approach has helped me to learn a tremendous amount from both success and failure.”

Su’s success, rescued from the ‘glass cliff’ of failure, exemplifies the findings of a recent Harvard Business Review study: women are better leaders during a crisis.

Characteristics that HBR’s survey respondents rated as most important in a crisis include:

  • Inspires and motivates
  • Communicates powerfully
  • Collaboration/teamwork
  • Relationship building

To unpack some of these leadership competencies and more, OnDeck gathered 15 quotes from female founders like Su, and took them apart to see what makes them work.


The Fall Guy

A running theme through OnDeck’s research is that humility and fallibility go a long way.

“When you accept that failure is a good thing, it can actually be a huge propeller toward success,” as Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd says.

There’s a lesson in every failure. Each one takes you closer to a desirable outcome – even if the route might not be the one you intended. Accept your mistakes, rather than riding over them, and you become more adaptable in the future.

True confidence comes from knowing you’ve studied the angles – including finding out what doesn’t work. It also comes from knowing your limits: “It’s okay to admit what you don’t know,” says Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors. “It’s okay to ask for help. And it’s more than okay to listen to the people you lead – in fact, it’s essential.”

Barra’s point indicates another general trend in our research: successful leaders are team-oriented.

Nurture talent, and your collective success will be greater than if you shoot for the headlines as a lone superstar. A team maintained by support, trust, and understanding lightens the burden on the leader. And a leader that capitalizes on the diverse strengths of their teammates expands what is possible for their business:

“Building a good team requires you to hire people that may know more in a certain subject than you do,” says Helen Robertson, Franchise Owner of Expedia Cruises. “Find individuals who have a diverse set of skills and experiences and feel free to rely on them for advice and responsibilities.”


Putting the XX/XY in Team

OnDeck’s conclusions are echoed in an analysis of gender differences in leadership effectiveness, written by the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup and Cindy Gallop, CEO and self-proclaimed “Michael Bay of business”.

They argue that male domination in leadership roles creates a learning block in business and politics – especially because women are demonstrably more effective as leaders. Indeed, men may rise to leadership roles more often than women because society misreads overconfidence and apparent infallibility as ‘symptoms’ of success. Often, brash confidence is just a symptom of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Women feel they must emulate men to get to the top, when it would be better if the men at the top emulated women. The writers highlight humility, empathy, self-knowledge, and the elevation of others among the leadership lessons (most) men can learn from (most) women.

Of course, we’ve all got a lot to learn from each other. From our successes and our failures. But for an instant business school effect, try starting with these 15 lessons from successful leaders – all of the gender that has been repeatedly proven to be the best bet for business leadership, through the bad times and the good.

Female Founders and CEOs infographic




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