An invitation to co-create a way for women to lead together: the #WeLead Manifesto (By Debby Edelstein & you)

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This is an invitation to join me in writing a new manifesto for feminine leadership. It’s an experiment in feminine, creative collaboration and this post is about why I need you

My creativity is a dance between finding my voice and creating conversation. It’s a kind of a dance in and out of the light. The cool shade of thought and contemplation and then the scarier notion of exposing blemishes in the sunlight in heady conversation with a carefully selected circle.

I have succeeded and failed at both aspects of this dance in equal measure. I have allowed fear, disguised as false modesty to prevent me from putting my best ideas out into the world. I have used collective wisdom as a safety net for being stingy about sharing my best work. (“There’s so much brilliance in the world already, what could I possibly add?”) I have regularly squeezed the handbrakes to stop myself from doing both in full flight. I have made excuses that have sounded so elegant that I’ve almost convinced myself.

This post is a public declaration of intent to stop self sabotage and stinginess and to experiment instead with radical collaboration and generosity.

From now on, I will reference and give credit to the people, authors and thinkers who inspire me. I will invite whoever wants to, to join me in co-creation. I will hold on to the confidence to share my best leadership vision and energy to make inspired projects happen.

  • The first step to lead in this new collaborative way is to get to a place where you accept that you have value to offer the world. (I’m about as close to this step as I will ever be)
  • Then perhaps you need help accessing your voice before you have the courage to speak or write your ideas. (that’s where you come in) I know there’s no escape from this most fundamental form of creativity –I have to articulate it and share it with the world before the next step.
  • Which is to engage others in conversation to take an idea from good enough to brilliant.

Sometimes I pick up a book that makes me want to jump. It stirs my thinking and shakes me so deeply that I physically have to put it down and stop reading. This counter-intuitive response has to be the worst form of procrastination.

In fact, maybe it’s more serious than procrastination and is actually a kind of a death-wish.

Because after all, a fear of experiencing intense creativity and the desire to return to the far more familiar state of inertia is an attempt to kill something beautiful rather than allowing it to flourish.

So it’s a rather serious problem. Because it means that I have the ability to elevate garden variety procrastination to an art form. It’s all very well to postpone tidying my desk. But procrastinating the ideas that excite me the most and which deserve to blossom in the world is a self-destructive way of living that I would not recommend. I also suspect that this is a malaise that anyone familiar with the creative process will find familiar.

One of the books that made me jump is We-Think by Charles Leadbeater. Today I picked it up again. I last looked at it years ago. It was also a good few years after being exposed to a workshop with Leadbeater for the first time at the Tallberg forum in Sweden when I didn’t yet know who he was. Charles Handy was in the same workshop and I was starstruck by the bigger name of another great thinker whose work I admired.

When I discovered We-think I loved it so much that of course I put it down. But it had made its mark and inspired the name of the women’s leadership circles I launched two years ago which I called Welead.

I chose the name because even though they were created for women, the name isn’t gender specific so that we can allow for the concept to evolve to include mixed gender circles. I like the implied collaboration in the word “we” which is integral to what we believe about a more feminine leadership approach.

Leadbeater explains in his forward how half-way through the writing of his book, he realized it would be “odd to write about the growth of collaborative thinking in the traditional way: the writer at his desk, isolated from the world, alone with his thoughts.

“With the support of my publisher, Profile, I posted an early draft on my website so people could download it, print it, read it and comment on it. They could also go to a wiki version to change the text and distribute it to their friends and colleagues” 

This approach excited me when I first read it and it excites me now. Co-creation is the most fun way to learn and it’s the way we learn about leadership in WeLead circles. If you’re an ambivert like me, (thank you Susan Cain for making it OK to be an introvert) then you’ll understand the need to alternate between quiet thinking and writing time and the more exuberant energy of bouncing ideas around in conversation.

It’s also a brilliantly efficient way to work and we need to do it more – both at school and university and at work.

My 16 year old daughter wrote a mammoth English literary essay this year. Their Grade was tasked with exploring the notion of power and powerlessness in 5 books – 3 prescribed and 2 elective options. It’s by far the most ambitious English essay they’ve been tasked with yet and she was feeling a little overwhelmed. So she completed 90 per cent of the essay and then spent an hour discussing it with her older brother. This conversation and the insight my son could give her made the difference between good and brilliant and it got me thinking.

Rather than letting my energy fizzle out towards the end of a big project, (or sometimes in the middle) who can I ask to help me with the last gloss of brilliance that will take my work from good to great?

That of course is where you come in. This is your invitation to join me write the manifesto for WeLead Circles.

  • What does the best possible form of feminine leadership look like?
  • Where have you experienced it before?
  • What have you read about leadership (collaborative, feminine or otherwise) that inspired you?

I invite you to comment, contribute and add your voice to a new way of leading in the world. Whatever you’re thinking, I want to hear it . It’s time to discover and describe another way of leading together and its far too exciting to do it alone.

“We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for”

#WeLead

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Magic happens “when some friends and I started talking.” #wordsandmusic

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On Sunday night a few friends decided to get together to host a special evening with food, music and poetry. They called it #wordsandmusic and I’ve been thinking about what they did to get it so right.

“It all began when some friends and I started talking” says Meg Wheatley, one of the authors who has most shaped my definition of leadership.

While her quote refers to social change, it’s equally relevant when it comes to dinner parties. Because a conversation has the ability to gather magical momentum whether we’re talking about starting a movement or hosting friends.

First came the inspiration of Lionel Bastos (who I’m delighted to say will perform once more at our Women’s Leadership Conference this year with Wendy Oldfield) Now I know that Lionel is a great musician and also that he has retained his humility and remains a mensch. But I could never have guessed at his sensitivity as creativity coach as he shared the stage with Mandy Collins. He knew just how much to support and how much to let go – a rare talent

Then of course was the courage of the evening’s convenor Mandy Collins who took action and turned Lionel’s suggestion into reality by acknowledging that it was time to let the world hear her original music and her voice.

There’s something powerfully generative about doing what makes you scared. Mandy said she was terrified but by facing her fears and going where her creativity needed her to go she unleashed a special kind of magic. She did so with a gentle presence and musicality that saw her harmonise easily with one of SA’s best musical talents.

Poet Ruth Everson brought a gravitas to the evening with her courage with words that made us all feel that truth is the only option. What better gift could a poet give? The fact that she was Robyn Clark’s English teacher was one of the many delightful little connections which lit up the gathering like the fairylights in Mandy’s garden,

Clive Simpkins was the perfect MC. ( one member of the audience tweeted that he was “starstruck to have met him) As much facilitator as raconteur, he was perfectly tuned in to the atmosphere and to what needed to be said when. (Not only to all the performers but his easy reference to many members of the audience too made us feel we were at a big dinner party rather than an event)

There was also gratitude aplenty – I’ve hosted many events and I can’t tell you how often speakers forget to say thank you to the host.

But not this time. Everyone was beautifully aware that we’d been invited to something intimate and special and we were more than happy to pay for the privilege of being there. There was also a spirit of collaboration – not one of the performers tried in any way to overshadow any of the others

I left wanting more and inspired that there’s a group of people up the road from me who are genuinely committed to creativity and collaboration.

If you’d like to lead like Mandy and start your own conversation, this is the simple guide I give at many QualityLife events which #wordsandmusic followed so instinctively

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The PHD (pull her down factor) – How mothers can help their daughters change the world

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There’s one particular theme that has recurred in my work with women in leadership that I have resisted and challenged for years. And this is the complaint – reinforced by countless women – that the women they encounter in organisations are far less supportive than their male colleagues.

Surely we can’t generalise about more than 50% of the world’s population? Surely there are good women and bad women in the same way that there are bad and good men?

And is it reasonable to expect unconditional support from a sisterhood just because we belong to the same gender?

Even the editor of a South African glossy magazine who is a role model for many young working women, wrote in a recent editorial that “more men than women have had an empowering impact on my career.” And I couldn’t help feeling she’d let the team down with her comment.

Many men I have spoken to assure me that women tend to romanticise the ease of male relationships. “Do you really think we’re part of a supportive congenial network and that you are the only ones who suffer with politics?” they counter.

The only advantage they seem to share is that they don’t expect a brotherhood of loyalty. They know that politics is part of organisational life and that’s that.

But my reservations aside there are just too many women referring to the “pull-her-down” (PHD) syndrome as one of the main challenges facing women in organisations for me to continue dismissing it as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And despite my intellectual discomfort with sweeping generalisations, I haven’t forgotten the “mean girl” dynamics I had to contend with at primary school. And now that it’s my own daughter’s turn to navigate the teen years, I watch her struggle with the same issues I hoped that I had left behind me forever.

It seems that there is no girl or woman who isn’t familiar with the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that leave us hurting and our mothers helpless. So what is it? Does it exist? Why does it exist?

Feminist author Elizabeth Debold suggests that the roots of this behaviour go back further than we might imagine. Research on female primates show that many of our evolutionary foresisters spend their time grooming others to avoid being picked on and holding grudges against each other that make reconciliation impossible, all to gain an advantage in sexual reproduction!

But Elizabeth (who joined us via Skype at one of our women’s leadership conferences a few years ago) also believes it’s possible for us to grapple with our primitive drive to compete with each other so that we can realise a higher potential. (Which I can’t help thinking is a human opportunity rather than a particularly female one)

The challenge is that there is very little advice on what to do and how to behave in a way that builds resilience and compassion at the same time. Usually the values we encourage at the dinner table are very different to the ones that are celebrated on the playground.

So what can we do to help our girls develop a more positive way of relating to each other?

  1. We need to change the narrative that happens around girls and girlfriends. Yes there might be mean girls who bring your daughter down but focus on the friends who support her too.
  2. In the same way that Hollywood idealises romance, unrealistic images are often painted of “best friends” . I have some wonderful women friends in my life but none of my relationships bear much similarity to the kind between Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson in Bride Wars. Celebrate the small acts of kindness and support you get from your friends and your daughter will start developing more realistic expectations too
  3. Teach your daughter what it means to be a good friend so that she “becomes the change” rather than waiting for the perfect friend. Praise her for loyalty, courage, compassion and practical things too like remembering birthdays and phoning a friend when they are sick to offer homework help
  4. In my work with women leaders I ask them to reflect on who they turn to in times of crisis when they refer to the PHD factor. The answer is invariably “my women friends”. But sometimes we neglect these friends in our busy lives – something of which I am often woefully guilty. But in the tradition of appreciative inquiry practice, what we appreciate appreciates. Our relationships need time if they are important to us.
  5. Remind your daughter to choose friends who are worthy of her and her energy. Whether they are male or female, we need to encourage affirming relationships in our lives while we limit the toxic ones. This way we’ll have more time to spend with the people who deserve us and who we deserve in return.

By developing some conscious guidelines, we’ll start changing the narrative rather than leaving each generation to struggle it out for themselves. After all if we aren’t taught what it means to be a good friend on the playground, how can we expect a leg-up a few years later in the even fiercer battleground that is the workplace?

The PHD (pull her down) factor was the subject of our #welead chat on twitter last night. These chats around leadership are taking place every Wednesday night at 7.30pm CAT in the build-up to our 9th Annual Women’s Leadership Conference on May 22nd and 23rd.

 

What entrepreneurs, bloggers & Rumplestiltskin have in common

My Dad says that much of the work that I do is to create something out of nothing. I’m not sure whether he thinks this is a good thing but it’s a concept I think about a lot.

I thought about it again when I read Matthew Buckland’s article on entrepreneurship yesterday where he describes “the entrepreneurial way “— starting your own company, raising capital for it and do what entrepreneurs do best — create something out of nothing and follow their own destinies.”

In fact  if I was to choose a fairytale character I relate to the most it’s probably the rather random Miller’s daughter in Rumplestiltskin because when there is important work to be done, I know  that, like her, I should lock myself in a dark room and spin straw into gold.

That I think is the challenge of the digital economy. To take the straw that is verbage, information and clutter and transform it into something that adds value to the world.

It’s also the dilemma of the freelancer, the leader navigating uncertain territory, the knowledge worker.

In an age which prizes collaboration and working together, all introverted workers (who thanks to Susan Cain and her book Quiet are now proudly coming out of the closet)  know the value of locking yourself up, facing a dark night of the soul and trying to produce gold.

Gold of course doesn’t need to be lucrative. (although if you’re in business, whether or not people want to buy is a convenient test of whether or not you’ve hit the mark) But sometimes it’s a sense that you are proud of the contribution you’ve made.

Whether or not it’s completely original, as long as it has a unique and authentic stamp to it, there’s nothing to beat the feeling of pride when you’ve created something you’re proud of. Something that makes you feel: ‘I worked hard, this might not be perfect yet but it’s good and I’m ready to show it to the world.’

And this is probably why we should all blogImage

Why you shouldn’t speak up

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For years I’ve been telling women in particular about the importance of finding their voices and having the courage to speak up.  How we need to have the courage to confront, name what’s wrong and say how we feel because doing so  is an act of leadership which will pave the way for others who don’t feel the same courage at the time.

Of course, as we all do, I teach what I most need to learn and recently I spoke up about something I usually prefer to leave unchallenged.  Frankly I avoided this conversation because I didn’t feel like dealing with the backlash raising it would unleash.

Well as I expected, it unleashed some anger and bile and it made me remember all the reasons not to speak up.

  1. There will be people who will shout you down and make you feel unworthy, uneducated, ill-informed and silly
  2. You might be rejected by people who have more money, more influence and louder voices
  3. In some communities speaking up might even put your safety and life in danger.
  4. It is easier to keep quiet
  5. It can be scary to speak up
  6. You might embarrass your children
  7. You might upset your parents
  8. You might get unfollowed or unfriended

That’s it for now but I’m sure, if pressed I could come up with a few more.

So with all of these reasons not to speak up, why should we continue to do so?

Because as Anais Nin says “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Finding our voice and using it represents a life force. When we choose to ignore it we die a little inside. Speaking up celebrates life and our responsibility to make the world as we see it a little better. And even though that’s only one reason it’s the very best one I’ve got.

Is there still place for a women’s leadership conference?

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Yes I’m still asked this question, even though leadership conferences with all-male line-ups continue to be trotted out with alarming regularity. So I’m taking the liberty of publishing extracts of this general press statement as a blog post on the eve of the 8th Annual Women’s Leadership Conference.

At a time when many women hold top leadership positions, some might question the value of women’s leadership conferences. However, Debby Edelstein, founder, organiser and chairperson of the 8th annual Women’s Leadership Conference, says in a world where men still dominate the conference circuit, women leadership conferences are essential for mentorship and encouragement, giving women a platform to share their knowledge and experiences.

“There is an inordinate amount of conferences where it’s still regarded as acceptable to exclude women’s voices from the debate. Much of the context that we work within remains patriarchal and unwelcoming to women’s voices,” says Edelstein, referring specifically to a number of high profile conferences last year which boasted a conspicuous absence of women in their line-ups.

“I am exposed to brilliant talent on a daily basis, I’ve been championing the area of women’s leadership for 15 years, and I’m more motivated than ever to show women in leadership how they can raise their profiles to get the recognition they deserve.”

The Women’s Leadership Conference, which takes place on 22 May and 23 May 2013 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Rosebank, provides such an opportunity, however, with one strategic difference: In addition to a strong line-up of highly successful women leaders, this year includes a few top male speakers (namely GIBS dean, Professor Nick Binedell; journalist, Victor Dlamini; CEO of Avatar Zibusiso Mkhwanazi and co-founder of the Citizens Movement, Bobby Godsell).

This is the first time men have been included in the Women’s Leadership Conference, a decision which was made following a survey of the women who took part in last year’s conference. “Although women still dominate the event, placing women speakers and men speakers together on the same line-up entrenches the message that there is an abundant talent of top women speakers who are capable of sharing the podium with their male colleagues, women who are equally poised to speak about leadership issues.

“Importantly, the inclusion of men also helps to ensure the women’s leadership agenda becomes a conversation that men are having too,” she says.

Women are still traditionally responsible for taking care of families and communities, and as they take up more leadership positions at work, we need to see a different approach that encourages a more even distribution of responsibilities across the board. “Women’s leadership today is about changing the game completely and creating a different, healthier set of rules and values,” says Edelstein. “This can only be achieved by discussing these issues with our spouses, partners and male colleagues.”

“We want to encourage women to recognise their leadership abilities, to see themselves as leaders and raise the game in terms of the topics they speak about.  The Women’s Leadership Conference creates this space,” concludes Edelstein.

Faith in our Future (by a 17 year old South African)

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A guest blog post by my son Adam Edelstein

I wouldn’t call myself an optimist, nor would I call myself a pessimist. I understand the danger when walking alone at night in the middle of Newtown, but I also see the small acts of kindness prevalent in South African society. I see the shifty looking meth head walking on the other side of the road, but I also see the laugh shared by passing strangers.

With four of our cities being in the top 50 most dangerous in the world, many people seem to think our future looks grim. Corruption is rife and most of our country’s truly great leaders are either not in politics, over 80 or have already abandoned the country.

And yet, when I go get a coffee from around the corner from my house, and the guy at the counter gives me a high five and a huge grin, I don’t feel despair or bitterness. Make no mistake, I think there is a massive weight on the shoulders of our generation, but I don’t think we’re quite as alone as we think we are. I feel, in fact, quite the opposite. I feel hope.

When asked where one intends to work after university, many people say ‘London’, ‘New York’, ‘Paris’. I myself want to travel, and hopefully work all over the world. I also, however, intend to make a contribution right here in sunny South Africa, the most diverse, energetic and, frankly, also one of the scariest countries in the world.

I’ve seen a few, thankfully rare, individuals express loathing for our beautiful country. They feel hopeless and angry towards the ‘corrupt government’ for failing us so dismally. They say that they ‘can’t wait’ to get out of this garbage dump, and finally see the beautiful beaches of Australia.

To put it bluntly, our beaches are better.

The government has failed us in many areas and they will soon have to face up to their mistakes, and yet it is important to remember the many who truly try to change South Africa for the better. The many individuals who focus on the people, rather than the paycheck, and have dedicated their lives to fighting crime and the forces of evil.

As the generation that I am privileged to be a part of grow up, and finally face the true heat of South Africa, we won’t take ‘Sorry.’ for an answer. We are the generation that not only changes the face of this country, but the face of the world.

Already, calls for change have been echoing in school halls all around the country, and bills for internet censorship and media secrecy have been met with outcries that the government cannot help but listen to. The voice of the youth has always been powerful, but the potential of our generation has exceeded that of any before us. School children calling their teachers to their classes, ensuring they have a matric education. Teachers striking against the terrible conditions they are forced to teach in.

Perhaps the change we bring about is due to our size, but maybe it’s actually due to our nature. We’ve been brought up by the wisest teachers and parents the world has seen so far, and we’ve witnessed some of the world’s worst disasters.

We are the countless protesting against rape in, not only South Africa, but America, the Middle East, and Europe. We are misogynists and racists, but far more of us are gay pride, gender equality and anti-bullying activists. We ignore the few who seek attention to be popular, we see one another for who we truly are and we don’t see individuals by the colour of their skin, but rather by the nature of their hearts.

We are the largest, most revolutionary generation this Earth has ever seen. We are Generation Y, the Millenials. We have the responsibility and drive to change the world and the power to overcome more problems than the world has ever known before. Not only will we fix the cracks and flaws in modern society, but we will take our race to a place only dreamt of by past populations.

So no, I am not an optimist, and sometimes I feel exceedingly grim when looking at the obstacles we have to face in the coming years. And yet, I have hope that there is true innovation and goodness in this country; hope that the terrible crimes I hear of can be remedied, not by ‘teaching women to defend themselves.’ But rather by teaching young boys that rape is unacceptable, that no means no.

I have hope that by teaching the future leaders of our country that everyone is an equal, and that your character is measured by how you treat those who can do nothing for you, the majority of us will be supremely powerful leaders.

We are the leaders the world has been waiting for, and our time is now.