Every August when it’s Women’s Month in South Africa, I think of the scene in the movie Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock smiles beatifically and says “world peace”.
Stan Fields: What is the one most important thing our society needs? Gracie Hart: That would be… harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan. Gracie Hart: And world peace! Stan Fields: Isn’t she lovely? Thank you, Gracie Lou.
Bullock plays FBI agent Gracie Hart who goes undercover in the Miss USA beauty pageant to prevent a group from bombing the event. Gracie is a straight-talking cop rather than a people pleaser. But when when her first retort “harsher punishment for parole violators” gets no response from the audience, she reconsiders. And when she resorts instead to the “world peace” response that the audience expects, the crowd goes wild.
It’s a line that has become almost iconic in the way it captures what happens when we are seduced into saying what everyone wants to hear. So I often think about it in relation to the presentations I give to women leaders. Because there’s a tension between what I know is most important about promoting more women leaders and what some audiences want to hear.
The crowd-pleasing lines that I resist are comments like this one “be the woman who fixes another woman’s crown without telling the world it was crooked”. I mean, seriously.
I believe with all my heart in the power of appreciative inquiry – that what we focus on grows under the glow of our attention. If you believe that women bring you down, these are the friends you will continue to attract. But if you believe that women build you up, the corollary is also true.
So I talk instead about the importance of finding your own tribe or WeLead circle to support you in reaching your professional goals. Even though the notion of a circle of support has becoming increasingly popular, it still doesn’t have nearly the same kind of click bait appeal that reflects the line made famous by Madeleine Allbright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
Even though Allbright’s intention in saying this originally was to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign trail, it continues to be quoted in a whole lot of contexts as a way to support the notion that women are wired to bring each other down rather than build each other up.
The media thrives on bad news and sensationalism which is why you have a better chance of getting a standing ovation if you talk about catfights than if you talk about the practical steps needed for building inclusive organizations.
But it’s high time that the conversation about women’s leadership progressed beyond the platitudes about feminine leadership, frenemies and catfights. If women-led countries are indeed doing better than others during this pandemic, let’s rather spend time articulating the kind of leadership attributes that the world really needs now – qualities like moral leadership, service, collaboration, compassion, wisdom, strength, inclusion – rather than being seduced by the kind of instant gratification clickbait that is woefully limited in truth and its ability to change the world.
In 1972, a group of young musicians made history by creating an orchestra without a conductor. Nearly 50 years later, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is still something of a prodigy in the search for viable models of collaborative leadership.
The role of the conductor has changed significantly over the last century since the days of Arturo Toscanini who famously broke batons, berated musicians and even threw a score at his orchestra during rehearsals. But even so, an orchestra is still not the kind of environment typically associated with democratic leadership. This is of course why Orpheus still stands out.
There are rich lessons in collaboration in the way the 34 members of Orpheus work together as a collective and rotate leadership roles. It’s also a case study in how leadership can evolve to adapt to an environment where more inclusion and democracy is called for.
We have lost faith in command and control leadership and all the inequities it has created. This was the the old-style, take-charge, rally-the-troops type of leadership typified by Winston Churchill, Thomas Watson, and Lee Iacocca which has largely fallen out of favour.
Today you will struggle to find many high profile leaders who don’t describe themselves as collaborative in some way.
Now it is necessary to appreciate the wisdom of the crowd rather than continuing to idolise the lone genius. As leadership author Ken Blanchard says “No one is as smart as all of us”.
So Orpheus is a case study in hope – the hope to find a new way to exchange feedback, refine teamwork, enhance motivation, and encourage creativity whatever the industry.
There are, however, those who believe that the Orpheus process pays a price for its commitment to radical collaboration. The response has often been mixed and reviews can go both ways. The same performance is either described as brilliant or staid. Musicians too are divided in their views.
Many say there’s a sacrifice made when rule-by-committee exists; there is often no consistent point of view through a piece. Rehearsals can take hours, everything is debated and no clear vision of a piece comes across.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of business theory in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford is one commentator who remains unconvinced about the merits of the Orpheus model.
“There are various movements that have tried to ‘democratize’ organizations. They mostly don’t work or don’t last. I am a huge believer in the advantages of the Orpheus approach, but it flies in the face of fundamental human psychology. “ he says.
As one frustrated violist commented: “Large orchestras simply can’t succeed without a benign dictator to take the reins and make decisions — right or wrong, then take credit/blame and responsibility.”
In his article Collaboration Overload in Harvard Business Review, Organisational Psychology Professor Adam Grant and co-authors Rob Cross and Rebe Rebele question whether the collaboration wave has gone too far and suggest that the time has come for a “collaborator-in-chief’ to mediate the chaos of too much consensus.
There is much to praise about collaboration but there are also some traps to avoid. We have all grown weary of too many meetings, emails and the other unproductive interactions associated with collaboration at work. Excessive collaboration saps energy and leaves us with just too little time to do our most important work.
Whether it’s the conductor of an orchestra that needs fresh inspiration, the leader of an organisation that needs new direction or a country who needs hope in the middle of a pandemic – there is still a place for the benevolent dictator.
As long as leaders focus more on the benevolence part of the equation and less on dictatorship, we will continue to value direction from someone who knows the overall score better than we do and who is able to inspire us to make more beautiful music than we are able to create on our own.
There’s a particular Aesop’s fable I keep thinking about. It’s the one with the man, the boy and the donkey. You can google the original but in a nutshell it’s about a man who tries to take the advice of everyone regarding his donkey and ends up with the worst deal of all when his donkey drowns. The moral of the story of course, is that if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no-one and don’t do yourself (or your donkey) any favours either.
There’s so much conflicting information around right now about what we should do, how we should behave and even what we should think. But we’ve learned that just because someone has a title or a degree or a uniform, doesn’t mean that they know what’s best for us. No-one is coming to save us and that’s a hard pill to swallow. We’ve also learned that if we speak up about what we believe, there will be haters. But if we keep quiet and don’t speak up about what’s important to us, we lose respect for ourselves and that’s far worse.
It’s tough to know what’s right when we’re being pulled in different directions and don’t know who to trust. It’s scary to speak up when you don’t feel safe with those around you. In times of chaos and crisis like these, it’s harder but more important than ever to be centered.
Being centered means that you have a reference point or a place to come back to when life’s challenges and emotions push you off balance. The centre is the place you know you have to get back to. The challenge of course is how to get back there when chaos and the conflicting advice and views of others suck you elsewhere.
Being centered is an essential leadership skill but more importantly it’s an essential human survival skill at the moment. And I think we can all do with a reminder of how to get there. There are many ways. You can breathe, listen to music, pray, meditate, look at pics of your loved ones in your camera roll, (family, friends or furry) walk barefoot on the grass, hold a hot mug with two hands. But most importantly, you need to recognize when your centre is wonky and go through a mental check list of how to get it back again. When you find your centre, you’ll find it easier to access your creativity, your common sense, your intuition and your leadership. And those are qualities we all need plenty of right now.
When you look for free underwear pics online, most of the images are not quite as wholesome as this one. But considering this advice is courtesy of my mother, I thought this one was nice and appropriate
“First put on your panties” is the advice my Mom has always given me whenever I feel overwhelmed with all I have to manage in a day. It’s what I thought about this morning when I wondered what to do first in unraveling the new challenges that have become life and business as usual in this new COVID 19 reality we’re faced with.
It’s what I think about when I know that what I need most is to be centred and sensible and to do the first things first. Then all the rest will follow. One step at a time
I know life feels challenging right now but we’ve got this. I’m going to share the best ideas, resources and people I know with you and invite you to do the same.
But first put on your panties
With lots of love Debby and Debby’s Mom (and Buttercup)
Some years ago, a beautiful story about planting one
daffodil bulb a day for 40 years went viral. Although it might well be an urban
legend, the daffodil principle remains a lovely metaphor about the value of
doing something small but regular on a daily basis. Of course this is the same
principle around compound interest – if we invest a small amount of money for a
number of years, we will eventually be rewarded in years to come.
Nearly two years ago, I started learning Spanish on
Duolingo in preparation for a trip to Spain. Two weeks learning was only enough
to get some basic phrases under my belt (¿Dónde esta el baño? quiero la cuenta
por favor) But it was such fun that I kept it up and now have a fairly decent
vocabulary. This year I started some conversational Spanish classes and my
teacher was surprised with what I’ve achieved with an app and fairly regular
practice. As someone who has never really been very good about daily
disciplines, learning Spanish has been a satisfying experiment in my own
personal daffodil principle.
Writing mentor Jeff Goins talks about the value of
starting small. I’ve always had a
tendency to over-estimate what I can achieve in a day and underestimate what I
can do in an hour.
But the trick I’ve learned, is to take really small
goals or chunks of time and turn them into a daily discipline. Author Fiona Snyckers told our book writing
circle to write just 300 words a day – so
much more accessible than the loftier 1000 word goal I had in my head but have
been finding tough to achieve.
Happy Spring Day to everyone in the Southern
hemisphere. (and here is my 300 words for the day done and dusted)
Everyone hates meetings. Most of us concede
that they are a waste of time and an opportunity for the preening and posturing
of only the most powerful and obnoxious. From walking meetings to virtual meetings,
agendas and catering, corporations are hungry for good strategies and creative
ideas for making meetings less mind-numbingly boring.
In a generation where few have heard of
Emily Post, teaching the art of hosting, practical listening skills and allowing
everyone a voice can be surprisingly effective when it comes to creating the
kind of psychologically safe spaces which Google has made famous. It’s no coincidence that these are also the
kinds of environments where innovation flourishes and meetings are most
Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review ran a piece called “Why your meetings stink and what to do about it?” Author Stephen G. Rogelberg says that “the goal should be not to kill all meetings but to eliminate the ineffective or unnecessary ones and improve the quality of those that remain.”
challenge of course when it comes to any gathering which involves human
dynamics, is how best to do this. “It’s easy to simply show up and default to
the usual way of doing things. But when you’re a steward of others’ time, you
owe it to them to make some modest upfront investment.” says Rogelberg.
While the number of books on how to run better meetings and host richer conversations at work continues to grow in number and in quality, they are a mere hors d’ouvre when compared with the smorgasboard of offerings around anything to do with the culinary arts. We’ve come a long way since Julia Child was the last word on cooking. From Nigella Lawson to Nigel Slater, MasterChef to Chef’s Table we are spoilt for choice. Game of Scones is the recreational choice for the meeting-weary when weekend strikes.
Strangely though, it’s in the sanctity of
home and hearth that little has changed in the way we run our dinner parties. There’s still a chasm between how we set our
tables and the kinds of conversations that occur around them. The food might be
delicious and the table settings sublime.
But it’s unusual for any but the most unusual host or hostess to
remember the kind of conversational decorum that is in fact a whole lot more
common in the boardroom than it is around our dining room tables.
The big difference between meetings and
dinner parties is that we know the former are boring but dinner parties are
meant to be fun.
Priya Parker the author of the Art of Gathering says
“I like to tell people that Martha Stewart’s greatest crime wasn’t insider trading, it was telling a generation of hosts that gathering is about fish knives, flowers and canapés; that if you get the things right, magic will happen. One of the documents I found that illustrated this for me was a party-planning guide on Stewart’s website. It’s a 29-item checklist and only three of the items focused on people.”
A great dinner party isn’t just about good food and wine. Usually tables are full and conversations are empty. But what we are really craving, is meaningful conversation, human connection, forming closer bonds with our inner circle and meeting interesting friends of friends who expand our worlds.
It’s bad enough not meeting anyone new (At
what age do we decide: “This is it. I’ve met all the people I need to know, the
cart is closed”?)
What’s eminently worse is having to listen
to the same voices who continue to dominate while displaying no curiosity about
new opinions, views and voices.
Often, the most interesting dinner parties are the ones where no-one knows each other or at the very least where not everyone belongs to the same social circle. Awkwardness can dissolve into lively discussion. Learning to listen can result in new learnings and surprise connections.
It requires effort to step out of one’s
social comfort zone, but in the same way that organisations benefit from
diversity, so do our communities. Something special happens when people can’t
get stuck on small talk, work, school and holidays.
So even though the next dinner party you host doesn’t need to have an agenda, a chair and a stopwatch, perhaps the next time you decide to invite people over it’s time to borrow some of the pre-planning discipline from the corporate world.
Focus first on purpose before getting
overwhelmed with logistics and details. Ask yourself “Why am I hosting this
gathering? Who should be part of it? What do I want to achieve? “
Make a point of introducing everyone to
each other and seating your guests thoughtfully. Ask questions which encourage personal
stories rather than opinions.
Sometimes generosity of spirit is even more important than
generosity of food and drink. It’s time
to shift our focus away from recipe books and table settings and focus instead
on the timeless ingredients that create magic between people.
It’s tempting to
talk about how far women’s leadership has come over the last few decades. After
all a record breaking six women are running for President in the US. More women
are running organisations and governments around the world and the #Metoo campaign highlighted the reality and
scale of sexual harassment for everywoman.
However as Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
reminded us at the recent G7 ministerial meeting on gender equality and women’s
empowerment: “No country in the
world has achieved gender equality. No country. And this is nearly 25 years
after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.”
Progress aside, the fight for gender
equality still has to be won on many fronts.
Women’s leadership is important because it is only when there is more
equality in who leads, that gender issues like educational injustice, weaponised rape and child marriage
will receive the attention they deserve.
Feminism (still a surprisingly fraught
and misunderstood term) simply means that men and women should have equal
rights and opportunities. And one
of the best ways we can accelerate this process is to get more women into
positions of power.
Not surprisingly, as the late Kenyan
Nobel Peace laureate, Wangari Maathai noted “The higher you go, the
fewer women there are.”
Some advocates of
change like Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook believe in what has been
referred to as the DIY model of empowerment. Women should “lean in” more and be
more assertive in order to increase their leadership potential
critics include Anne-Marie Slaughter, political scientist and the author of Unfinished Business (OneWorld) who
believes that much broader social, political and cultural change is necessary to
change the system.
I believe both. The
broader system and the values it represents certainly needs to change but for
many of us who aren’t able to influence change on a structural level, we still
need to find a way to make changes where we can. I’d like to suggest two
strategies for making a difference that are accessible for most of us.
The first is that
we broaden our definition of what leadership is. And the second is that we focus on some of the
skills that come naturally to many women.
Even though there
is more recognition of different kinds and styles of leaders, we still tend to
default to the style of leadership which is more traditional and patriarchal.
(I lead and you all follow)
After all which
names come to mind when we think of who is at the helm of countries and
organisations and even who we should invite to give the keynote address at a
conference? It’s still easier to give
lists of high profile male leaders.
Years of being
socialized into a way of being in the world means that many of us are more
comfortable to be in the wings than to take centre stage. It’s not that there’s
a shortage of talented women. Rather it’s a sign of how reluctant women often are
about taking a seat at the table.
However, when we
use a different, more inclusive definition of leadership it’s easier to think
of more women who fall into this category.
We are more inclined to include ourselves as legitimate candidates for leadership.
And most important of all, we can become
more ambitious around what leadership is able to achieve in the world.
Margaret Wheatley’s definition is helpful.
“A leader is
anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and
takes the first steps to influence that situation”
When this is our
definition of leadership a leader might be a parent who intervenes in her
child’s school or a colleague who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in
her workplace or a neighbour who rallies others around saving trees in the
When we expand
our notion of what leadership is, we encourage people to step forward and make
a small difference in their communities. It’s also the kind of definition that
is naturally more appealing to a wider range of women leaders.
In the same way
that research into the world of micro-financing reveals how women who accept
loans are more inclined to invest back into their families and communities,
women are more inclined to expose themselves to the risk of leadership when
there is a greater cause at stake.
When we think of
leadership as a call to make a contribution rather than a more individualistic
instinct to put ourselves in charge, we tap into a feminine ease with
supporting others, speaking up for the voiceless and making a difference to
strategy is to harness a set of skills which comes especially easily to women .
This is the cluster of skills which I and others in leadership describe as the
art of conversation.
The dark side of
this ability is when girls exclude others socially. Most women have at least a memory of what it feels like
to be an outsider. Often it’s as a result of these social scars that women
reinforce the narrative that women are inclined to bring other women down
rather than build them up.
But the flipside
is a natural ability women have around creating conversations, safe spaces and
making others feel welcome. Like good listening skills, the idea of inclusion
is becoming core to good leadership. Inclusion simply means making sure that an
organization is welcoming
at every level to every individual. Inclusion is about diversity of thought and individuality
regardless of race, heritage, or gender. It’s becoming the new normal and at
its heart is a skill that is second nature to little girls all over the world.
Teaching the art
of hosting conversations, practical listening skills and allowing everyone a
voice can be surprisingly effective when it comes to creating the kind of
psychologically safe spaces which Google has made famous. It’s no coincidence that these are also the
kinds of environments where innovation flourishes and meetings are most
different countries, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds have been raised
to welcome others into their homes, make them feel comfortable, introduce them
to people they might not have met before and offer them food and drink. The
limitation is that we have been raised to think of these skills as the skills
of home economics rather than as the elements of leadership. These are skills
that we don’t need to go to business school to finesse. They are abilities that have been relegated to
the catering committee of our communities rather than into boardrooms or peace
talks where they belong.
In an age where
we have too many connections but feel less connected than ever before, we crave meaningful conversation, human
connection, forming closer bonds with our inner circle and meeting diverse
voices who expand our worlds.
These are the kinds of leadership skills that the world needs now. Not because they come naturally to women but because they create and encourage essential human values.
It’s time we took
them out of the domestic realm and put them into the world.
This article first appeared as an Op Ed in The SA
Jewish Report. Sajr.co.za
My grandmother was quite convinced that she saw a fairy once.
So it’s not surprising that fairies and fairytales were central to my childhood. My mother filled our heads with magic and other whimsical creatures and I formed my own code for what was good and bad in the world
Fairies were a metaphor for anything happy, hopeful and filled with possibility. Holidays, surprise parcels, exciting emails still fall into the fairy category.
On the other extreme were custards. (How I loathed the lumpy stuff especially when it formed a skin)
So a fight with a friend, a piano lesson when I hadn’t practised my scales, a dentist visit – custards.
I still find myself scanning my day, my week and my life to see the ratio of fairies and custards at any given time. I have even hosted a Good Fairy Week and Wonderful Wizard Week to encourage those of us jaded by work, bills and responsibilities to get back in touch with magic and the joy of paying it forward.
Whenever I feel myself getting sucked back into lumpy custard territory (and yes, there have been times when my Doc Martens have felt a little soggy of late) it’s time to recommit to fairies once again.
How we do so is the key question.
Too often when we want to get the magic back we turn to addictive behaviour like sugar, facebook or shopping when what we are really craving is something far more nourishing and far more radical.
When I scan the last 25 years of my working life, my favourite projects and those I’m still most proud of – are those I created with attention to curiosity, creativity and a fair dash of risk. All the elements which make for grown up magic.
It’s the kind of work that makes me feel most alive. I believe too that it’s the work that makes the most difference in the world. Work that brings surprise, courage and magic into a world that needs it.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always fun. And it always includes wonderful people and great conversation.
Wishing you an abundance of fairies and no lumpy custard in your favourite shoes
with love and a renewed commitment to radical creativity
With my own Wonderful Wizard at a Good Fairy Week celebration
I was a feisty little girl. With a mixture of pride and amusement, my father still tells me how fierce and fearless I was when I drove bumper cars at the fair. I spoke up easily about injustice when I saw it. I got angry when I felt like it. And at the age of eight I was the obvious choice to represent the preparatory school and speak at the high school assembly.
But it’s been difficult to unleash these memories. In fact if I didn’t have my parents’ account of my youth or photographic evidence of little me flashing my eyes at the world, I probably wouldn’t believe it. Because it’s not long before popularity and fitting in become far more important than speaking up and accessing our power. Very soon we learn that holding a contrary opinion is a sure way to be excluded and labelled as odd. Very soon feistiness becomes a distant memory buried in the pages of a dusty album.
It turns out that this kind of confidence is not unusual for girls in their early years. In her 1993 book, Fire with Fire, Naomi Wolf talks about how our five year old selves are naturally feisty: we dance in public, we wear what we like, we speak up when boundaries are crossed and when we disagree.
I still believe that women’s leadership brings something new and necessary to the world. We care more about people and peace and sharing prosperity. It’s right and overdue that these conversations are becoming more prominent and less alternative. But there’s a missing piece in the conversation. In fact it’s so conspicuous in its absence that it almost feels deliberate. And that is the conversation about power: how to excavate it from beneath the layers of social constraints and when to use it; how to understand the rules of power that are still affecting our lives and dictating how we live.
There’s a reason that we’re working too hard and not getting the recognition we deserve. There’s a reason someone else gets the position or the promotion. It’s because we’re not taught about power and don’t know where or how to decode the rules. In our anxiety to be liked and patted on the head we didn’t notice where they hid the manual.
Power and influence are where I’ve been focusing my attention in the last few months as I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the WeLead Women’s Leadership Program (the pilot launches in May). I’ve never been clearer that there cannot be leadership without power and influence. The women in my network are tired of being distracted into thinking that we need to spend even more time on personal branding and self-awareness. While we’ve been watching Brene Brown, it seems that the other half of the world is still studying Machiavelli. If we really want to change the world, we need to stop pretending that this isn’t so. It’s time we learned how to understand the rules so that we can really change the game.
But far more important is that you commit yourself to getting back in touch with that feisty girl you once knew.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that all the skills I need can be found within my WeLead Circles. From marketing and design, to copywriting, music, project management and research – I can’t begin to tell you how brilliant and generous my tribe of WeLeaders has been in helping us make this the best women’s leadership event yet. Continue reading →