Deciding on Your Focus Area

Deciding on Your Focus Area

If you’re reading this BLOG, perhaps you’ve already jumped the biggest hurdle I had to leap to get started in my effort to become a scholarly leader – I had to decide what area of scholarship I wanted to be a leader in!  I found this challenging!  I had a difficult time recognizing that I wanted to focus on women and leadership.  Now, it seems so obvious, but the choice eluded me for years! 

I’d been an early woman leader at IBM, but that was just who I was, I didn’t recognize it was an area for study!  In my master degree classes at Columbia and then later at Boston University, I focused on strategy.  I’d become very intrigued by technology strategy while with IBM and had a wonderful time studying it.  But, then what?  People laugh when I say I didn’t think a little old lady would have much credibility in the young men’s world of high tech – but I didn’t find it all that funny!  I floundered for years before I realized, after teaching leadership in the doctoral program at the University of Phoenix for several years, where my practice and scholarly worlds came together.

Women and leadership is a pretty big umbrella though – how would I decide where to focus under that umbrella?  Again, the decisions that seem obvious now took quite a while to emerge and followed a twisting path.  Fortunately, one of my UOPX colleagues, Dr. Anastasia Metros, who has now returned to focus for a while at least in the world of leadership practice, was there to share this path with me.   I thought I wanted to focus on older women and leadership – she humored me and we began looking at the life stages literature to help us build a base.  Students were anxious to help.  Another student was interested in women on boards, so we started thinking about older women on boards.  We went to Asilomar 2013 and hosted some lunchtime discussions – to our dismay, we didn’t generate much enthusiasm when we spoke of older women leaders.  We found no great review of the relevant literature on life stages and that seemed like an opportunity.  Even though we had two students working with us we didn’t feel the review we were doing was even scratching the surface and knew it was far too superficial and missing important sources (I’ve continued to learn of other key sources as I move ahead on other topics).  With another student we started working on older women on boards.  We submitted a poster on our emerging older women on boards proposal and had it accepted by the International Conference on Management, Leadership, and Governance (ICMLG).   Having the poster accepted was exciting, but we started to realize that US boards have lots of older people on them already, even if most were men.  At least initially, adding younger people including women seemed more important than adding older women.

None of these first projects panned out, but they played a formative role in each of the streams I am involved with now, women board members’ roles in board decision-making and women’s development of their leader identities.  I’m convinced the latter will, someday, provide grounding for a study of what women over 70 who have strong leader identities do in their mature years.  But that is well in the future.  Each stream is with a research team and we’re in the midst of some great projects; I’ll write more about each team and our activities (both our successes and our failures) in future weeks. 

It wasn’t easy choosing a focus area and it involved many false starts!  It took a while to figure out what my passions were and to align them with those of other potential research partners and the world of scholarly leadership.  I’m still learning how to work with students when I’m not their instructor.  I’m still learning how to be an effective member of research teams.  But, I’ve learned that the false starts are also valuable;  whatever we do, I learn a great deal that will be valuable in upcoming projects – I learn about the literature, I learn about methodologies, I learn about working with others, and I learn about joining the world of scholarly leadership.  

So if you’re thinking of getting started and aren’t too sure whether your idea is a good one – just do it!  You can learn from your mistakes.  Your ideas will evolve.  Your time won’t have been wasted.  And if you are looking for help identifying Women and Leadership areas where research is needed, be sure to check out the Women and Leadership Researchers Group support available to help you select a research topic! 

If you have comments or questions I’d love to hear from you!


Rhonda Capron's picture Rhonda Capron | July 8, 2016 2:00 pm MST


Are you familiar with  Ruth Veloria the Executive Dean for the School of Business mentioned them to me.  I plan to register and learn more.  Are you already connected with them? 

Thanks, Rhonda

Lynne Devnew's picture Lynne Devnew | July 9, 2016 6:55 am MST

Hi Rhonda,

Yes I am familiar with 2020 Women on Boards and the work they do.  The Boston group, not as active as it would like to be but producing several of the annual conversations on board diversity, has an office at Simmons College, my alma mater.  I occasionally send letters for them urging companies to add women to their boards, regularly attend the annual conversations, and have established links with Malli Gero, the President of 2020 Women on Boards.  For a bit, I worked with them to help kick start the Boston branch; but it wasn't working at the pace I guess I demand:-).  

This fall, the National Conversation on Board Diversity will be held on November 17 (; it doesn't appear any are scheduled in Phoenix yet.  My sister went to one of the National Conversation breakfasts with me soon after she retired a couple years ago and did some great networking that contributed to her now being a very active trustee at the Boston Children's Museum.  The speakers at the annual conversations are worth listening to also.  One of the events was my introduction to Susan Vinnicombe.  Sue in the Director of the International Centre for Women Leaders at Cranfield University and has been very involved in the efforts to increase the women on boards in the UK and a leader among women on boards scholars.  Sue was generous enough to agree to be on a panel I organized discussing women on boards at the 2015 Academy of Management in Vancouver.

Thanks  for coming to the site, Rhonda.  I hope to see you here often!

Joyce Fields's picture Joyce Fields | August 17, 2016 10:24 am MST


I am new to this blog. I am looking forward to participating in future discussions.



Lynne Devnew's picture Lynne Devnew | September 30, 2017 7:01 am MST

The 2017 National Conversation on Board Diverity is being held across the United States on November 15, and this year there is one being held in Scottsdale/Phoenix, AZ.  You can learn more at

I  realize I keep plugging the upcoming book I'm editing More Women on Boards of Directors: An International Perspective.  Here comes another plug.  Malli Gero, the founding president of 2020 Women on Boards is the first author of one of the chapters.  Malli and a research associate on her team wrote about debunking the myth of the Queen Bee!  It's a fun chapter.  


Eula Rogers's picture Eula Rogers | May 10, 2019 8:35 am MST

Dr Devnew

I was just browsing on the site and caught your post. I may be a bit late in my comment, however the subject matter "Women on Boards" caught my attention. I live in Trinidad and Tobago, a small twin island state in the Caribbean, i currently serve as Chair of the national postal operator, an organization that employs upward of one thousand persons. I think my country made geat strides in including women on Boards, I believe more so in the public sector. I worked in the private sector, specifically in Banking, Insurance and Finance and can attest to the challenges to be even considered for the senior management teams, far less for Boards.

I am currently pursuing a DM in Leadership, I am at QRM stage. As a Scholar, Practitioner, Leader I will continue making a contribution to the development of my country, empowering younger women to be the catalysts for change in whichever sphere they find themselves. 

I wish you all succes in your future endeavors.


Lynne Devnew's picture Lynne Devnew | May 11, 2019 2:56 pm MST

Thank you for browsing - and for posting, Eula.  I just re-read the post you responded to and realized I haven't even posted that the Women on Boards book I was first editor for has been published and I've had a blog published about it - and an interview.   Writing that all up will be my next activity!

You note that you are at the QRM stage in your dissertation journey.  I'm hoping you picked a great topic related to "...empowering younger women to be the catalysts for change in whatever sphere they find themselves."  

You note that you think the challenges for women joining boards in Trinidad and Tobago are less than the challenges for women gaining access to senior management roles.  At least when it comes to CEO roles, this seems to be true pretty much everywhere.  

I hope you'll find valuable information here in the center and will post again!





Lynne Devnew's picture Lynne Devnew | August 17, 2016 11:41 am MST

Are you thinking about doing research related to women and leadership?  Do you know what you want to study already?  If not, how might we help you develop a focus?

Welcome, Joyce!  So glad you decided to "stop in" to visit!



Joyce Fields's picture Joyce Fields | August 18, 2016 11:48 am MST


At the moment, I am considering focusing on women leading in a crisis. I live in Columbia, Maryland which is very close to Baltimore, Maryland. Currently, it is two women that are leading the city of Baltimore through the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death.


Lynne Devnew's picture Lynne Devnew | August 18, 2016 2:32 pm MST

Women leaders in times of crisis sounds great.  The Baltimore story could be quite powerful.  I do have a suggestion of a place to start.  The Glass Cliff literature (I think the sequence is different and it assumes the women were the only ones crazy enough to accept the positions heading organizations in crisis) would seem a great place to start.  I would think the articles there would help you identify some of the most relevant theories, theorists, and researchers.  

Do you have access to the women?  There has been so much coverage I expect you could fashion a study based on coverage in the public domaine if you don't.

Keep us in the loop!  Woud you like a research partner or partners?  I get emails from researchers interested in working with others and we haven't yet constructed a good approach for matching them up.  I think (you would be a witness until yesterday) that far more researchers are reading the posts than are posting, so perhaps a potential partner will read of your study!



Fathiah Inserto's picture Fathiah Inserto | November 14, 2016 8:29 pm MST


I am new to this - just retired from a leadership role and I am looking for a research partner. I am interested in a case study approach to leadership in higher ed.


Fathiah Inserto

Paula Miller's picture Paula Miller | September 28, 2017 11:59 am MST

Dear Dr. Devnew,

Women can explore new opportunities and look for ways to expand their knowledge. For example, utilizing new technology and continually keeping updated in your field are strategies for success. As women and leaders, we use our intelligence combined with our abilities to make the right decisions. Making good decisions is part of taking care of the simple things like arranging meetings, including important people at those meetings, and developing skills and knowledge to get the results we want.

What do you believe are the top qualities that make women a good leader?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Dr. Paula Miller

Lynne Devnew's picture Lynne Devnew | September 30, 2017 6:35 am MST

Qualities that make a great leader - woman or man!  Fun to think about!  Thank you, Paula.

An exercise I learned from Dr. Rich Schuttler and loved to use in the year 3 DOC731R residency was to have students each think of the "best leader" they had ever personally known and list the three characteristices of the person that made this person the "best leader".   Then each student would briefly describe this best leader and we'd put the characteristics on the white board.  The board was always covered with different characteristics (we'd really only have a few duplicate responses).  I found this helpful for lots of reflections (for example, we seem to often select a person with the same strengths we have, or strengths we're working to have); it helped us see that great leaders don't all look alike.  

I've always liked contingency theories (leader for the situation) and situational leadership (leader for the follower) theories as ways to think of how best leaders behave.  

Recently I learned of the theory of androgynous leaders - leaders who have the strengths associated with both male (agentic) and female leaders (more relationship and caring oriented) ready to use when appropriate.  I found this mapped well to my conviction that excelling in one set of leadership skills, whether a male or female leader, is not enough to be a great leader - because, the best way to lead in a specific situation or with a specific follower is - well, it depends!

There is a fascinating chapter on androgynous leaders in the book I'm busy editing right now, More Women on Boards of Directors: An International Perspective.  A team of authors built upon the Lehman Brothers story from the 2008 financial crisis, and upon the frequent discussion of what it would have been like if it had been Lehman Sisters.  The authors argue in this future chapter that the best answer would be if the leadership team had been androgynous leaders.

What do others think makes someone a good leader?  How might these thoughts influence topics for further leadership study?  Are there other emerging leadership theories that might contribute to emerging insights?


Paula Miller's picture Paula Miller | October 3, 2017 12:27 pm MST

There are many types of leaders and the models and definitions are useful in determining where we fit into being a good leader.

The androgynous leaders would be appropriate with moral and ethical responsibility where women and men would be equally represented in a company when decisions are being considered. For executive boards in a company, it would be important to avoid discrimination and have women and men considered in the decision-making processes. The androgynous leadership would be important for a company to have a good workplace for highly-qualified women and men.

In contrast to other leaders, the transformational model of leadership is a new paradigm of leadership to stimulate and inspire followers to achieve extrordinary outcomes and within the process they assist people to develop their own leadership ability. A transformational leader empowers people by aligning their objectives and goals of the individual with the leader, group, and organization. Also, these leaders can move followers to exceed their performance levels.

In the workplace, I like the transformational leaders because they can motivate others to do more than they intended to do. Further, these leaders help followers to develop their own leadership potential and be creative. For example, they can involve followers to commit to a shared vision and goals for their unit. This challenges them to be innovative problem solvers and develop leadership ability with coaching, mentoring, and support. In review of the may types of leader, we can gain insight by listening, working, and participating with leaders.

Dr. Paula Miller

Lynne Devnew's picture Lynne Devnew | October 3, 2017 1:45 pm MST

Thanks, Paula.

Are you planning on doing research related to leadership concepts?  If so, would you like to discuss your study or how you'll determine what to study?

There's also a lot of great work being done on followership!

PS - I'm not a huge fan of transformational leadership as normally defined because the leader seems to be the sole visionary and I have found developing a vision often benefits from broader participation in the acitvity.




Paula Miller's picture Paula Miller | October 3, 2017 10:17 pm MST

Hi Dr. Devnew,

I am looking at several options regarding leadership and research. I haven't made any decisions about a topic and part of the difficulty is working among difficult leaders. Many of the leadership concepts are interesting so I will continue my research and see what I find out.

Thank you,

Dr. Paula Miller

Lynne Devnew's picture Lynne Devnew | October 4, 2017 5:15 am MST

Working with difficult leaders.  This almost seems to be an oxymoron.  If this is fascinating you, I suggest you look to see what research has already been done on this and see if you can spot a great gap.  It sounds as if it could have some very interesting opportunities.


As an aside, Paula commented to me in an email that a friend told her "A blog can become qualitative research and that in itself could be the research."  It might be interesting to discuss whether this might happen by accident or, if not, how we might go about using a blog for a research study. 

Paula Miller's picture Paula Miller | October 4, 2017 8:04 am MST

Dear Dr. Devnew,

Thank you for your great ideas! Looking for some of the gaps in researching leadership may provide interesting areas to study. I will continue to review the literature as well as see what proposals are needed in leadership.


Dr. Paula Miller


About the Author

Lynne Devnew



Journal of Leadership Studies-Symposium Piece-Relational Leadership: Perspectives of Key Constructs on Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity in Higher Education

Psychology Today
Blog Posts Published


American Psychological Association Conference-Utilizing Clinical Hypnotherapeutic Intervention with CBT to Treat Pandemic-Aug. 13-2021 Symptomology

ILA Conference Geneva Switzerland 2021
Presenter -Topic-"The Stress Arc in Leadership and 3 Powerful Disciplines for Mitigating Major Stress Impacts in a New Era"-Upcoming
Presenter -Topic-“Improving Higher Education’s Role in Diversity and Social Equity through Relational Leadership in the New Era”-Upcoming
Presenter-Topic-"Healthcare Leadership-Using Virtuous Leadership in Chaos to Reimagine Beneficial Practices of Employee Cognitive Psychology"-Upcoming
2021-Knowledge Without Boundaries National Summit-College of Doctoral Studies Research Conference-University of Phoenix-Panel Discussion-"Exploring Emergent Trends in Leadership and Education"-Based on published symposia article from the Journal of Leadership Studies-


Lynne Devnew
More posts by author:

Visit Our Blog

Visit the Research Process Blog for insights and guidance from University researchers Go >>


Recent News