This year, our reaction to the Harvey Weinstein scandal offered the clearest indication yet that the ‘Strong Man’ model of leadership is no longer viable. Tolerance of abuse have plummeted to zero levels. We are increasingly demanding leadership that is shared, empowering, honest and responsive.
Central to this is the need for authenticity. In our fast moving world we focus on speed and decisiveness, for ourselves and our leaders. But what is desperately needed is respons-ability: the capacity to truly respond. A fundamental ingredient in authenticity, this means resisting the demands of speed, to stop, pause, think; to reflect deeply, perhaps even at length.
This is exemplifed by the story of barrister Selima Danton – as I will call her.
Standing up, and being diminished
In 2013, 26-year-old Selima won first prize in her country’s oratory competition. Participating junior lawyers deliver a speech, mirroring a courtroom defence plea, that must ‘convince, please and move’ audience and judges.
Despite being a major European player, this country’s legal profession, and this competition, only opened to women in the 1920s. Nearly 100 years later, Selima became only the eleventh female winner. She fit none of the stereotypes of a courtroom barrister, and was tiny in stature.
The award event was a formal dinner held in an imposing 18th-century dining room, attended by the country’s intellectual elite. Steeped in ritual, pomp and ceremony, the evening features formal toasts, with firework displays of wit and self-congratulation.
Selima had planned a dignified acceptance speech. However, as she stood to speak, the President of the Bar council, seated next to her, leant forward, gave her bottom a squeeze and cooed ‘Off you go sweetheart!’
Selima froze. Instead of her speech she muttered dull words of thanks. Afterwards she had to endure witty asides about her lack of eloquence, and some expressions of concern. She said nothing.
After the event she brooded. Should she report or forget the man’s transgression; dismiss his belittling as the fumbling of an idiot? Her reflections and conversations with colleagues lasted a year.
Selima discovered the President was well known for arrogance and casual sexual harassment. She understood his action was intended to diminish her. She mulled over possibilities, from formal grievance to putting the incident down to experience.
Stand up and be counted
A comment from Selima’s boss decided her: ‘If not for yourself, say something for other women, those who do not have the opportunity to speak out.’ She planned her action for the 2014 prize giving where, as last year’s prize winner, she would give an address.
At the event, Selima wore her barrister’s robes, symbolising her status as a lawyer.
She moved from the table to the centre of the floor and spoke. She linked her first steps as a lawyer with memories of war and the slow development of rights for women and for immigrants.
‘And yet’ she said, ‘on the 5 June 2013, I was seated at your table… a lawyer… winner of this prestigious prize… I was moved, proud as your equal – when suddenly, with the back of a hand, equality was broken!’
Selima had chosen this phrase carefully: those who knew what had happened recognised the equivocacy; others were left to wonder. But she pulled no punches in speaking of feeling brought down. ‘We proved last year that no one of us is better than another simply through winning a prize.’
She named no names, instead making a plea for matching fraternity with equality, eloquence with honesty, words with deeds. ‘Tonight is the hour of reconciliation. We must move forward, never forgetting to draw inspiration from the past.’
Then Selima removed her legal robes: ‘And now, and only now, with this symbolic gesture I proudly enter our honourable fraternity. Equality is re-established. To our wonderful but all too fragile liberty.’ As people raised their glasses there were tears in their eyes.
To choose forgiveness over revenge, and compassion over shaming her oppressor, takes a particular kind of maturity. Selima’s story touches to the heart of respons-ability, the capacity to respond thoughtfully.
Her patience, personal journey, the support she reached out for, and her decisive response to the call to step up on behalf of others – all are hallmarks of the respons-able leader.
This kind of leader reflects deeply and widely. Selima reflected, and took the risk to speak out – as so many women are doing now against abuse of power. She did so not to punish but to promote the ideals and values that drew her to the law in the first place.
Selima embodied her values and she fully occupied and managed her context. She chose a circular space to communicate, changing the rules from being dominated by a linear hierarchy to participating in circular leadership, including others rather than dictating.
The power of authenticity
Authenticity ensures credibility. Selima’s gamble paid off: the President is reported to now shake hands with female colleagues and to have stopped his molesting and changes have been made to the selection and processes of the prize to favour greater diversity.
We may have cheered Selima on had she chosen vengeance. But how much more powerful her measured pardon. It was a pardon of the strong – made not from egotism but from a sense of personal responsibility for change.
One of the most inspiring aspects of Selima’s story is this embracing of responsibility to a wider cause: to the female lawyers that come after her. This sense of service gave Selima moral courage and stature.
Selima took a stand for a new framework at the same time as acting generously with the defenders of the old. In speaking her truth and standing up to power she resolved the cycle of damage – both the hurt and the shame – for herself and for the institution.
Hers was a very deliberate healing of the rift between old and new, and a signature example of authentic strength versus the Strong Man. In taking such respons-ability we can each find the courage to create the change that is so needed in the world.