World peace and catfights: It’s time for a more intentional narrative

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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.

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