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.
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.’
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.
Never mind the usual leadership gurus, it’s the story of the Little Red Hen and her can-do approach that has shaped my work life.
There are a few childhood narratives that strike a chord at the right time and have the power to stay with you forever. Together with a few other favourite stories my mother read and told (like Pookie the Rabbit whose whimsical illustrations gave me a love of blue flowers forever) the force of the Little Red Hen remains strong within me.
So imagine my delight to learn in Time that Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the recently released Lean In, was also influenced by this famous fable. In sixth grade, Sandberg took second place in a Florida-wide oratory contest when she used the folktale of the little red hen to talk about the importance of everyone doing their bit for America.
There’s a strong sense of industry, self-sufficiency and reliance in the tale. When the dog, the cat and the duck refuse to help her make bread “Then I will make it all by myself” said the Little Red Hen. “And she did.”
So over the years whenever I get frustrated that my ideas haven’t attracted the right support or sponsorship, I hear the feisty words of the Little Red Hen and remember “Then I will make it all by myself”.
It’s a liberating way to live. And I’ve launched a few businesses on the strength of this philosophy.
But as much as I love her and all that she represents, I’ve learned that there’s a dark side to the Little Red Hen and her self-sufficiency.
It’s the shadow side of the entrepreneur.
Benjamin Zander conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of the Art of Possibility told the story of how he once apologized to his students who didn’t attend an important concert because he, as their leader, failed to convey sufficiently how inspiring and beautiful that concert would be.
This I’ve learned is one of the most important roles of a leader – the ability to communicate a vision that takes people with you and allows them the joy of participation.
So I’ve learned that the Little Red Hen is missing a few tricks and these are a few ideas I’d like to share with her:
Yes you’re tough, multi-skilled and resilient but are you a great leader? Take time to share your vision of toasty, freshly baked bread and how delicious it will be
When you invite others to participate in your vision, you’re sacrificing complete control. There will probably be a mess in your kitchen that alone you wouldn’t make. But there’s fun, festivity and a sense of something bigger that can emerge if you tolerate the mess
Don’t take perverse pride out of being a bad delegator. Everyone can learn to bake if you take the time out of your busy day to show them how
Sharing the bread you’ve baked is far more fun when you do it together in a spirit of love and generosity. Have your friends over and give them a slice
With love and appreciation for all you’ve taught me.
Over 1000 kids having Shabbat supper together last Friday night
As my children experience the Habonim campsite that I loved as a teenager, I realize that there is an aspect of this organization that I can grasp only now that I’m not allowed on any more.
When we visited the campsite for DIGS day a few years ago it was quite surreal to see the stark difference between how our kids live in JHB and what the Onrust campsite has to offer. And even though I’ve been there so many times before, experiencing it through the eyes of a parent gives a very different perspective.
Instead of Blackberries and iPads our spoilt city kids are united in their dustiness. The beach is their mall. Most of them look like they could do with a good scrub. Essentially it’s a village of 1000 run by kids and to the untrained eye it could look a bit like a (harmonious) scene from Lord of the Flies.
But that’s only what you can see on the outside. It’s only many years later that I am fully aware of how a Habonim education has shaped my life –as a channie, later as a maddie and many years later as a Mom and someone who works in leadership and organizational education.
The peer to peer learning; the dedication of the madrichim who work late into the night refining unforgettable learning programs when their channichim have gone to bed; the dynamic methods of teaching which could (and should) inform teaching methods at schools around the country – are all part of the fabric which make up a very unique learning environment.
But there are other more profound influences that are more subtle and harder to articulate. There’s the backdrop of honest and tolerant but rigorous questioning and challenging of ideas you don’t agree with; (more valuable than any debating training) a sensitivity and respect for human rights around the world while creating a sense of pride in who we are and where we come from and an unspoken commitment to paying it forward once you’ve had the benefit of being taught.
And typically enough, the lessons from Habonim are not static. This is the kind of education that keeps on giving and my most recent lesson as an over-protective Jewish Mom has been to learn to trust that my children are strong, competent and resilient and can do just fine without me for three weeks.
But oh boy I can’t wait to have them home
channie/abbreviation for channichim – students
maddie/abbreviation for madrichim – teachers or leaders
DIGS – dignitaries day – when past Habonim madrichim are invited on to the campsite
hairy chicken – famous Habonim Friday night kosher chicken