Tenants of traditional leadership stem from a militaristic approach, a patriarchal structure and a mindset of succeed and win at all costs. And it’s very much about taking care of yourself, protection, and having your own back.
At the same time, feminine qualities and traits have had no place in leadership models, and certainly no place in the boardrooms or cultures of organisations. The qualities that have traditionally been deemed as feminine like empathy, vulnerability and intuition have been devalued for centuries, especially in the workplace. Caring, kindness and emotions in general are a no-go, career limiting zone. Be too soft, and you will never be seen as a leader.
This has formed a well entrenched one sided view of leadership, of power, and is one of the deep seated yet often unspoken reasons why we still see a dearth of women in leadership and positions of power in our society today. The devaluing of the feminine is also in part why we see women still opting out of organisations, sidelining themselves, or not choosing to progress into more senior roles. They will speak of many reasons why, those they can explain rationally. But there is often a feeling that sits under the rationality that they can’t quite put their finger on….something that just feels off even though they cannot articulate why.
Until they can.
Through researching thousands of women from dozens of countries on matters related to women’s lives, careers and leadership journeys, I have had unique insight into what women think, feel, witness, experience and believe about their work and life. These women have been part of our Women Rising program which takes them on a journey that spans their life vision, purpose, confidence, career development, wellbeing, authenticity and leadership. The findings are compelling, often unsettling, and lay the foundation for a new movement and revolution in how we all work, love, live and lead.
What happens when women awaken to the power that lies within them, and at the same time gain new insights into the power structures around them that have influenced every aspect of their work and life, is remarkable.
The veil lifts. That moment that comes, after a pause and a sharp inhale and then the utterance of, ‘I thought it was just me,’ as they realise with a long slow exhale that no, it’s not just them, it’s all of us. And it’s not because we are defective in some way. But because the system is. The culture is. Leadership is. Power is. That we have never been set up to succeed. That we are operating in systems that were designed by men for men, and still are. And we were never intended to bloom there.
When a plant isn’t thriving, you change the environment, not the flower. There’s nothing wrong with the flower. It’s just not in the right environment to grow and flourish.
Women have always been taught to believe that it’s their fault that they are not thriving in organisational environments. They that need to toughen up. Lead like a man. Change and morph themselves to fit in, be accepted, succeed. Be more like ‘them’. It’s often not spoken of directly. People would refute it if challenged. But it’s there. It comes in the behavioural norms, the expectations, watching who is rewarded and promoted and how those people act. It comes in the conscious and unconscious biases that pervade workplaces, practices and management. It comes in models of leadership that have women looking around them and saying, ‘if that’s what leadership looks like, and how I have to behave to be one here, I’ll pass.’ And it comes in the subtle or sometimes not so subtle and often conflicting messages that women are given. In meetings, in performance reviews, in side conversations, in the media.
Don’t be so aggressive. Just be more confident. You’re too abrasive. Speak up more. People find you confronting. You’re too emotional. You need to find your voice. Don’t be so ambitious. Put yourself forward more. Don’t get ahead of yourself. And on and on and on it goes. It’s relentless.
But what if there were another way.
What if, those very traits that have been left behind in our workplaces were embraced. Not just by women, but by everyone. What if leadership values of empathy and trust became the most revered and rewarded traits. What if power-with became more valued than power-over.
What if women didn’t need to morph into a masculine model of leadership to be seen as successful. What if the double bind that women experience, of being seen as competent or likeable but rarely both, no longer existed. What if men led with a mix of their masculine and feminine traits, and because they did, gave permission and acceptance for women to do the same without being penalised for it.
What if care for people became as important as profits.
What if true power existed for women outside the shadow of the patriarchy.
What if love was the operating language of leadership instead of fear.
A whole new world would open up.
One where the dominance of the patriarchy faded into the patchwork of the past, and a new world of true equality for all became the foundation for a new way.
This isn’t just a conversation that benefits women. It’s much more pervasive than that.
Because let’s be honest: patriarchal systems don’t just hurt women. They hurt anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the typical alpha masculine and often male way of operating and leading. Women who subscribe to masculine leadership models can survive there, but most do not thrive. We see it in the statistics of women’s role in power, or lack thereof as the case still is. It also hurts men who veer from the norm, as well as those with a different gender identity, or people from any minority race or group.
Leadership is changing. But not nearly fast enough. And we all have a role to play, particularly those in positions of power, in creating more inclusive and human demonstrations of leadership to create a world that we can all thrive in.