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.
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