Dalia Feldheim, Author of Dare to Lead Like a Girl, Discusses Leadership and Happiness

By Peter Page Peter Page has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on May 4, 2022

Dalia Feldheim, author of Dare to Lead Like a Girl, is an Israeli citizen began her career as a platoon commander in the Israeli Defense Forces, and has had various leadership roles ever since. For 17 years she was was a marketing executive at Procter & Gamble, after which she did a 10 year stint as CMO Asia for another Fortune 500 company, where she headed a team of 100 people across Asia.

Dalia Feldheim was led many memorable advertising campaigns, including Always #LikeAGirl in 2014, which won 14 Cannes awards and was listed on the Forbes 2020 10 Most Influential Campaigns of the Century. Her Whisper’s “Touch the Pickle” campaign won the 2014 winner Cannes Sheryl Sandberg Glass Ceiling Award.

After P&G, Feldheim became A citizen of Israel, she began her career as a platoon commander in the Israeli Defense Forces—an apt preparation for intense leadership roles.

Feldheim’s marketing jobs are not even the most interesting thing about her. She is an adjunct professor of The Science of Happiness at the Singapore Management University and, in partnership with Dr. Tal Ben Shahar and the Happiness Studies Academy, founder of Uppiness, an online game to promote wellbeing at work.

We asked Dahlia Feldheim about leading like a girl and the painful origins of the title, which hopefully are obscure to people younger than a certain age.

Grit Daily: Your new book is titled Dare to Lead Like a Girl. Is that a call for more women in leadership positions, or is to urge men in leadership to broaden their approach to leadership?

Dahlia Feldheim: Both!  The title is an homage to the Always # LikeAGirl marketing campaign I helped lead back in 2014, and is a provocative call to all leaders to connect to their more feminine leadership traits and dare to lead (more) like a girl. 

It’s a call for society to stop trying to fix women and instead understand the value in those more traditionally female leadership traits like empathy, teamwork and intuition. When we change our definition of what makes a great leader, we will see more women in leadership positions and more men bringing their hearts to work.

Grit Daily: I am pretty old, so I have vivid memories of when telling a boy that he threw a baseball like a girl was both a real insult but also considered a shorthand way to describe what he was doing wrong. How much is different now compared to that?

Dahlia Feldheim: Words create worlds. “Run or throw like a girl.” “You’ve got balls” is a way of describing someone with courage, and “Don’t be a pussy” means don’t be a coward.  That’s pretty powerful.

When we came up with the #LikeAGirl campaign, our desire was to change the meaning of words and re-claim the phrase “like a girl” to mean being proud to be who you are. The campaign was immensely successful and is now even taught in schools as part of social studies. A mum called me recently to tell me that her son’s football coach heard a friend shouting to his peer that he runs like a girl. The coach stopped the match, took all the players aside and had a serious talk on why this was inappropriate and denigrating to girls. He even showed them the commercial!

Her son was so taken by it, he shared it with his mum who contacted me. I would be a fool to think this denigration completely disappeared but I am hoping we are moving the needle. Now I am on a mission to reclaim the phrase once again—this time in the world of leadership.

Grit Daily: Nearly everywhere in the world, men hold most of the leadership positions in society, at least outside of the home. Acknowledging that the question presumes there are real gender differences, what are the problems with male dominated leadership that you believe could be solved, or at least lessened, by leading like a girl?

Dahlia Feldheim: First, I would like to point out that research shows that with the modern requirements of the workplace, women are not only as efficient as men in leadership roles but that women score higher than men with regard to 17 of 19 leadership traits as voted by their employees.

With the world going virtual, with the importance of customer relations, creativity and agility, the old leadership paradigm of command and control is not relevant anymore. When we look at the great resignation the #1 driver is toxic environments.

Our employees are suffering -1 in 4 experience acute work related anxiety. This must stop. We must humanize our workplace—put the hearts of our people at the heart of what we do. Bring back psychological safety by creating workplaces where employees feel confident to speak up and bring their full self to work.

This I believe will happen when leaders start leading more like a girl.

Grit Daily: You were a platoon commander in the Israeli Defense Forces. What did that teach you about leadership, particularly as a woman in command of men?

Dahlia Feldheim: Israelis have many mixed feelings about our mandatory military service, and the experience can be extremely challenging but looking back, my own service was a valuable crash course in leadership. The importance of motivation, leading by example, courage.

I will tell you two stories that bring this to life:

The first is during Yom Kippur—our holiest day of the year—my base commander went home and I became base commander. In the middle of the night we heard shooting outside the base. I had to alert a shooting squad. These were reserve soldiers 3 times older then I was. We started walking towards the shooter and suddenly I realized that this shooting squad of all men were walking slower behind me letting me lead. It was scary but I kept on thinking of the lives of my platoon relying on me. Luckily the shooter was caught a few hours later and safety returned but Leadership is about ‘ACHARAI’ which in Hebrew means follow me: a leader leads by example. You will never ask your squad to do something you are not willing to do.

For most of my service I was a platoon commander of basic training. The army is a melting pot and so you see soldiers from all economic backgrounds. One weekend one of my soldiers crossed the line and my base commander was furious—she said she wouldn’t amount to much. She wasn’t motivated and I was told to charge her and put her in jail. I ask for a week to consider an alternative mode of punishment. The main mode of punishment in those days was drills. And so at midnight she was brought in and I started drilling her 1-on-1 – run here, run there. But in between I gave her a full blown motivational speech. It doesn’t matter where you have come from, and I know your life has been harder than the rest, what matters is that the army has given you the opportunity to start over to prove who you really are to be an equal contributor to society.

It was the weirdest experience as slowly we started bonding. I was tough and demanding but caring and understanding at the same time. At 4 am she broke into tears and asked me for a second chance. The next morning as I entered our canteen she saw me coming and got the whole canteen to stand on their feet and salute me. She went on to be our best soldier. She completed her army service and went on to be a lawyer. We stayed in touch. I saw the value of treating people as humans no matter their background and believing anyone can make a difference if they just choose to.

Leadership really isn’t about men vs women and the traditional view of stern courage. In fact the word courage comes from the French word coeur which means heart. Courageous leaders are those who lead by example and lead from the heart- demanding and setting high standards but being empathetic and caring for the growth of their soldiers at the same time.

When your life and the lives of others depend on you being the best that you can be and the deep psychological safety and comradeship you develop in your team to save your back in times of crisis, you learn fast how to help your people be tough, resilient, professional and motivated.  

Grit Daily: You are an adjunct professor of The Science of Happiness at the Singapore Management University, which I find at least as interesting as your military service. What is the connection between happiness and leadership?

Dahlia Feldheim: A very strong connection. When I started studying positive psychology and Happiness, I realized that everything I intuitively knew about leadership was grounded in research. On a personal level I was always considered to be contagiously positive- this was a good thing- I was able to motivate teams to reach goals they never thought possible. But I had one boss who couldn’t give compliments because he felt it was a waste of time. He thought I was too positive and even nicknamed me ‘Miss Kumbaya’. I was glad to learn what I felt intuitively, that being positive makes you a better leader, and research shows all measures of productivity increase when you are in a positive state (engagement, less sick leave, less absenteeism etc).

Positive psychology is about focusing on what works vs what doesn’t. Looking at strengths vs always trying to fix opportunities. Having a growth mindset, that is, seeing drawbacks as growth lessons. And most importantly, positive psychology is NOT about being falsely happy all the time. It’s about giving ourselves and our employees the permission to be human. Being truly empathetic to understand it is OK not to be OK. Allowing employees to express how they are feeling and then helping them create an upwards spiral of positivity seeing new opportunities instilling hope and gratitude.

In fact, our brains in positive mode are 30 percent more productive. That is what I focus on- helping leaders lead with positivity.

Grit Daily: In recent years the phrase “first world problem” has become a label for the petty complaints of materially comfortable people. How do you, as a scholar of happiness, explain the mental health problems, frustration and plain unhappiness that is so common in wealthy countries?

Dahlia Feldheim: Well, it all comes down to to the Maslow Hierarchy of need: the basic needs are physical needs and safety, food, shelter. When you don’t have that, and sadly much of the population is in survival mode, that is your focus and your drive. Then comes the need for love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization.

The issues of the “first world” emerge when this self comes at the expense of others. When we ‘jump over’ the need for belonging, the empathy for others to fulfill our egoistic needs.

True self-actualization can only happen when we are using our unique strengths and passions to better the world for others (that will also improve the world for me but that focus is secondarily). That is the essence of finding one’s purpose.

One of the favorite workshops I lead for companies is ‘Find your spark.’  CEO’s get scared it will mean the employees will leave and start living as monks in the Himalaya but that is very rarely one’s true purpose. Like in the movie Soul, it’s not about getting to the one big thing, but the journey.

My moto has always been: have an idea of where you are headed (spend time on your purpose and your goals to have a pull power) BUT don’t let this blind you from enjoying the view on the way.

It is not goal attainment that brings us happiness. If we are only focused on reaching the summit we will be disappointed to learn that there is a bigger one behind. It is the climb that matters. Enjoying the view, learning and smelling the roses, watching the maple leaf as it falls.

The ‘dark side’ of the happiness society is the people got confused with chasing happiness instead of chasing the components of happiness. As my Happiness teacher Dr. Tal Ben Shahar refers to it: Happiness is like the sun – you can’t stare straight at it. But you can stare at a rainbow, which basically is breaking down the rays of light into their components.

The components (of happiness) are well documented and what I cover in my 5 P model for leading like a girl. How connected you are to a higher purpose- bringing to life your strengths and passion area to make a positive impact on the word. How much you cultivate a growth mindset: building resilience, reframing failure as a stepping stone to growth. How connected you are to your own energy. To what makes your body happy: what you eat, quality of sleep, meditation. How much do you invest in emotional bravery: being connected to and expressing emotions in a way that drives deeper empathy and connection.  Finally, and proven most importantly, how much you invest in building your relationships.  Because the quality of our life is the quality of our relationships.

So key in this pursuit of happiness is that it must be holistic. You can’t create a rainbow without all colors. You can’t put  lipstick on a pig and expect it to be beautiful. In the same way- we can’t be in a shitty job that pays well but we don’t enjoy, we can’t skip on sleep and party all day, we can’t be emotionally closed and have only shallow relationships, we can’t be takers without considering others and then meditate to become happier. We need to be making progress in all areas, live all the components, all the colors of the rainbow to be happy.

 When we refer to a leader we think of an exceptional person who is in command, while when we refer to a manager we tend to think more of a bureaucrat, but how valid are those distinctions? Is there a real difference between leading and managing?

This an important point! There is a HUGE difference between a Manager and a leader and most companies ignore this. I like to use the hands, head, heart analogy.

  • An employee focused on the hands- doing the tasks
  • A manager -brings in the head- giving strategic guidance. Builds skills, planning
  • A leader must bring in the heart! A leader no longer manages the business, but leads the people who manage the business. Here the focus is on managing motivation, tough-love feedback, aligning tasks to passion areas and strengths. It’s a very diff ball game.

Sadly, most companies ignore this difference.  You get some training on how to become a manager but you are not trained on becoming a leader. At P&G my first manager identified this gap and created a ‘people development’ course. I later joined him and when he left continued the program. This has become the basis for my ‘Aspiring leader’ program I now run with conscious companies like Microsoft, Google, HP and others.

It all starts with self-leadership: finding your own purpose, building your mental and physical wellness as you cannot lead others when you are not happy and congruent. It continues with the art of feedback, psychological safety and belonging and it ends with how each leader can foster a contagiously positive disposition. As we know people learn best when they apply- I have developed (together with my partners Oren Appel and Happiness expert Tal Ben shahar a game that we use to apply all our learnings encouraging employees to reflect on daily challenges using a variety of tools from the science of positive psychology.

These training show a very strong ROI as measured by employee self-assessment but more importantly their team’s assessment. The only person who can determine whether you are a good leader-are the people reporting to you!

That’s why I always use a tool called LAT- Leadership assessment tool- how much your direct reports feel you care about them as a human being, how open you are to their thoughts etc.

Another methodology change I believe all companies should adopt is the dual assessment methodology. In P&G you received an assessment on ‘Building the business’ (how well you delivered you KPIs) but also an assessment on ‘Building the organization’ (this includes both your own direct team but also other initiatives that help the culture and the people. You would only be promoted if you were top rated on both measures. If you deliver results but are a lousy people-person (as many of the ‘toxic’ managers could be), you cannot move on to the next level.

If all companies adopt this approach of leadership development on the one hand and this dual assessment, I would expect we would see much stronger leaders out there – leaders who lead like a girl– with their hands, heads and hearts.

Grit Daily: Are there any points you want to make that I have not raised in my questions?

Dahlia Feldheim: These are great thought provoking questions- thank you!

By Peter Page Peter Page has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Peter Page is the Contributions Editor at Grit Daily. Formerly at Entrepreneur.com, he began his journalism career as a newspaper reporter long before print journalism had even heard of the internet, much less realized it would demolish the industry. The years he worked a police reporter are a big influence on his world view to this day. Page has some degree of expertise in environmental policy, the energy economy, ecosystem dynamics, the anthropology of urban gangs, the workings of civil and criminal courts, politics, the machinations of government, and the art of crystallizing thought in writing.

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