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Fearless Reciprocity Between Men and Women Will Advance Female Leadership

Men can’t lead if they’re back on their heels, and if they’re busy deflecting, fearing or fabricating gender issues.

When we talk about including and advancing women in the workplace, the process is almost always connected to character, but it’s also connected to the work. Because the process has to deliver results for the organization.

And it does. It also opens up opportunities for men.

For example, we found a huge “effectiveness gap” in a recent eight-company study of how white male executives integrated diversity and inclusivity into leadership. White male leaders viewed their leadership performance in this area very differently than others in the organization, and the average differential on many leadership competencies was 30-40 points.

The opportunity in this effectiveness gap was to educate and build self-awareness for the white male leaders, so they could understand how others perceived their attitudes and actions; so they could do their jobs better; and so that the business could run better.

One of the other things we’ve learned from our research is that when it comes to gender discussions, men in the workplace are often fearful; as a result, they need a safe environment in order to have authentic and constructive conversations.

Few men seek to offend women; and most women have good intentions toward men. But, to be honest, the way women sometimes talk about men is critical without being helpful – and it doesn’t lead to a healthy dialogue between the genders.

So that’s one of the reasons why safety is key. Without it, most male leaders in the workplace will watch the gender conversation from the sidelines and remain non-committal about including and advancing women.

And, speaking of language, I don’t like the phrase “Male Champions.” It may invite us, as men, to view ourselves as “gender heroes” in our own mind, thereby missing the power in mutuality. We absolutely need mutuality flowing between men and women in order to increase and enrich female leadership in organizations today.  

We have to remember that a women’s strategy is only as good as the collaboration with men. It has to be a two-way street to be sustainable.

That’s why, for me, the term that really resonates is “Fearless Reciprocity.” This is the mix of personal responsibility, demonstrated respect, and courageous candor that fuels every healthy human relationship.

One important outcome of Fearless Reciprocity is that male leaders in an organization become better coaches, mentors and sponsors.

A lot of male executives I talk to right now know that they aren’t giving women the same corrective feedback as they give men. And they feel really bad about this.

But the reason they’re abdicating – much to the women’s disadvantage – is that they’re worried that gender issues will enter the feedback conversation.

We need to work on this. Women can’t successfully advance as leaders in companies if there isn’t corrective feedback equity from their male managers.

And, for their part, men can’t lead if they’re back on their heels, and if they’re busy deflecting, fearing or fabricating gender issues.

It all comes down to tone. If the conversational tone between men and women is respectful and honest, we’re going to see productive results that drive female advancement, business objectives, and, therefore, opportunities for men as well.

Having said all this, I want to be clear – and this is something my wife once told me: Men cannot expect the women in their lives to carry the entire burden of emotional intelligence. Fearless Reciprocity requires personal responsibility from men and women.

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As I look ahead, I’m encouraged. Many of the Chief Diversity Officers I meet these days tell me that they are starting to see more substantive support from white male executives in their companies.

Without doubt, it’s time for many more strong steps forward.

Chuck Shelton is the Managing Director at Greatheart Leader Labs
and author of “Leadership 101 For White Men.” He also serves as the Principal for The Study on White
Men Leading Through Diversity and Inclusion (, the first research to analyze the effectiveness of white men as they integrate diversity and inclusion into their leadership work. The study is sponsored by PwC, PepsiCo, Alcoa and Intel; other participating companies include: Wal-Mart, Marsh & McLennan, Exelon and Bank of America. He has spoken, consulted, coached and trained on leadership development and global diversity and inclusion internationally since 1981.


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