I have been coaching women leaders in business, politics, public institutions and charities, of all ages and in several countries for many years. The same issues arise: how to be powerful, how to be true to themselves, how to be more self-confident, how to believe in their self-efficacy and how to have a successful career and a healthy home life. While the issues remain perennial I sense a shift in the air, a new zeitgeist. We are now seeing enough women leaders in positions where they can effect real change to start drawing some observations from the way they tend to operate; and we are seeing women stepping forward in increasing numbers to play their part in a world universally recognised as fragile, where old power structures are unravelling and the very fabric of our planet lies in the balance.
To begin with I think it useful to make a distinction between women leaders active and working in the world today and what Jung called the feminine principle – characterized by receptivity, connectivity, circular forms, broad focus, attention to the emergent, being and caring – versus the masculine principle: sharp focus, competition, assertion, aggression, the heroic gesture, linear forms, doing, the will. Both sexes are wired for both compassion, accommodating others and for imposing their individuality on the world – both are capable of expressing both principles. The fact that women may tend to express the feminine principle more than men is partly biological – so far nature has prescribed that women give birth! But it is largely gendered: determined by cultural norms, societal expectations and upbringing. As we are seeing more women take up leadership positions, especially in business and politics, and more men getting more closely involved in bringing up their children, so norms and expectations are shifting.
My interest and enquiry is twofold. First, as a coach I am mindful of my responsibility to support women leaders to learn the ‘rules of the game’, to survive and thrive in the world as it is today, working as they usually do within organisations and political systems created and dominated by men. Women can learn to be effective without sacrificing their authenticity, to be powerful without playing power games and to be sensitive without appearing weak.
Secondly however I want to encourage women to recognise that with awareness, support and courage they can change the rules of the game itself. Recent research from MIT shows that diversity is critical for high performing teams, that the intelligence of diverse teams outstrips the intelligence of any one member, and that the more women in the team, the smarter it is (See the recent study published in Science). Why? Women’s higher ‘social intelligence’(a tendency to link, to include, to be curious, to care) encourages the whole team to work better collectively and perform at a higher level. So women make a significant contribution to the current workplace, and as more and more of them are stepping forward to take up leadership positions, they are starting to create environments and structures that are more conducive to higher performance, not only of women, but those in their teams: workplaces founded on collaboration, emergence vs heroic gestures, transparency and prominent ethics of support, responsibility and distributed authority.
So how can women bring more of this way of behaving to the teams and organisations they lead? It’s about authenticity and a belief that they are actors of change – ie. That they can change the rules of the game not just manage or manipulate within the current rules. Easier said than done! But in my experience women tend to thrive on the support they gain from working in groups. I have been running a leadership programme over the past year for young women leaders from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Belgium and observing how they give each other strength and how they are moving from a stance of mimicking macho displays of power to finding their own far more potent and radiant voices. They are learning to inhabit power with rather than aspire to power over, and as such achieving significant change in their communities, parliaments, businesses and schools.
My belief is that when all of us, women and men, discover our authentic voice then we can truly work together collaboratively, more effectively and start addressing the fearsome global issues that concern us all. This involves sustained and often deep work of bringing together masculine and feminine principles (the forces we could say of both will/power and love/collaboration) within ourselves and at the same time understanding and managing our shadow; without this inner work we remain untested in the fire of our own fears and demons, and our actions in the world will not have the depth that characterises authentic presence. I believe that women leaders can lead the way in this work. Organisations and individuals will most certainly benefit.
We are living now in what has been described as a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. This characterizes all periods of transition. Our current period has been called the Great Turning – when norms, models, and the world as we have known it are changing. Part of any transitional period is the dying of old norms: a Great Unravelling. The great patriarchal institutions created by great men which have formed the backbone of our societies in the West and elsewhere – the law, government, the church, education, the media, financial – have been found to be deeply flawed and some are crumbling. As our faith in them has been profoundly shaken, so also is our sense of security. But attempts to shore up these institutions with displays of heroic force strike as a sham. There is no going backwards: we must question old norms, structures must be rethought afresh, and we must look elsewhere and within ourselves for leadership – rethink our understanding of what this means and what is needed.
There is no doubt that this is challenging and often disturbing work; we may often backslide, and give way to our longing for the Great Father – the dictators (benign or otherwise) and demiurges who do our thinking for us and tell us how to live. But this is not the way forward – and in my work around the world, especially with women and with the young (Generation Y in particular) they know this and express clearly their hungry and energy for a different future.
Other significant factors for women and leadership stand out in this Great Turning. Ours is a networked world. Social media, the Internet, global networks are a constant part of our lives now: connectivity is the norm – a daily reminder that everything is connected. Women have always operated in groups and largely prefer a collaborative style of leading. A question we may therefore ask is do digital structures favour a more ‘feminine principle’ approach? Globalisation, whether corporate business, NGO or of social movements, demands more distributed forms of leadership. It is increasingly recognised that relationships lie at the root of todays successful workplace, not the transactional kind (sell-buy, win-lose) but the transformational kind that build respect, trust and the threads of connection that bind us into like-minded, like-spirited networks – and that make us feel good about ourselves and our contribution!
Finally, the global challenges we face today are too complex, too interconnected and too critical, and the speed of decision-making too fast, to be addressed or managed by the single Hero Leader. In organisations, business, corporations, schools and governments, we are being asked to reconsider leadership, power, authority and contribution and come up with new answers and better models that are fit for purpose in an age of change: volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. Women have a critical part to play at this key juncture in our world’s history and a key contribution to make in determining our future.
Hetty Einzig, 24 November 2014
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(The 2015 & 2016 workshops were a great success.)
Contact Hetty and Liz Rivers via the Women & Leadership Contact Form