The comment drew laughs, then applause and sympathetic nods from the audience. “I used to have really big difficulty in saying, ‘I want you to do this,’ ” Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox (XRX), confessed at Fortune’s annual Most Powerful Women Summit in early October. “When I got used to that, everything got easier.”
All executives walk a fine line between being collaborative and being the boss, but Burns’ quip resonates especially with women executives. How many times have we heard that female leaders are more inclusive and more team oriented than their male counterparts? That characterization may be true for many women managers and rising corporate stars, says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in leadership and innovation. “But at a certain point, if you are going to emerge, decisiveness, direction, and accountability matter.”
As part of its ongoing Executive Dream Team series, Fortune has spent the past several months exploring the increasingly cooperative nature of executive life: These days, for example, technology buyers are pairing up with marketers; sales and manufacturing officers are planning and executing in lockstep. But as some of the CEOs who spoke at the MPW Summit noted, there’s a time for collaboration — and a time to issue edicts. “I started my job right at the beginning of the global banking crisis,” Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont (DD), said. “People didn’t want to run with you — they wanted you to tell them what to do. And that’s exhausting. I realized that by the time I was really tired of saying the same thing, they were just getting it.”
Collaboration and leadership aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. In fact, top management has a big mandate to make organizations less “siloed” and more conducive to work among different units and different people. Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM (IBM), spoke at length about a company program that aims to solve global problems by putting together teams with different skills and backgrounds. “I think this is a time of great inclusion,” she said. But inclusiveness today isn’t just about adding women to the mix, she noted. “It’s geographic, it’s approach, it’s your style, it’s your way of learning, the way you want to contribute, it’s your age. It is really broad.”
And then, in the spirit of collaboration, she offered to share the details of the program with some of the attendees who wanted to try to replicate it in their own organizations.
This story is from the November 12, 2012 issue of Fortune.