I’ve been thinking about what it means to lead from the feminine. Having grown up with and surrounded by authority figures who are male, I’ve long equated leadership to be a masculine thing. Sure women are loving, safe, gentle, beautiful, benevolent. But a real leader, someone powerful, magnetic, commanding, effective — the image I conjure is that of a man or a woman with manlike qualities. And with this I’ve long internalized that if I am to be powerful, effective, make an impact, and be taken seriously, then I should make myself as manlike as possible. Meaning I should behave as though things don’t bother me, intimidate, wield sharp analytical prowess, in all ways be able to compete with the toughest of them.
For as long as I can remember, my own mother has said to me, “Softer, you have to be softer. You are a girl.” I rebelled strongly against this all through childhood. The disdainful connotation I found was that being soft was to be subservient and to put ourselves second to men. Later after I became a woman, she still often says, “You are the gentler sex, use that to your advantage.” or “As women, we know how to serve our men because we have gifts they simply have no inkling of.” or "You are the water that must flow around his rock.” Hearing these kinds of things made — still make — my blood boil. They in fact make me want to jam my elbow into the nearest Adam’s rib or apple. Fortunately for my loving husband undeserving of such attacks (mostly), I usually pound out my frustrations in a gym or failing that jump up and down in place until my feet hurt. Women are equal to men! We can be just as strong and capable!
As I’ve become a wife and mother of two boys, I have very gradually learned that there is such a thing as leading from distinctly feminine strengths. After a thousand times of the family triggering my fight response, of yelling, pushing through linear argumentation, the my way or the highway approach — all this and getting nowhere except everyone most of all me being burned up — I am humbly learning that there are indeed powerful ways to lead from the feminine energy. And it doesn’t mean I am weaker or manipulative. It means recognizing my strengths and honoring that they bring a wholeness that is otherwise unavailable among the whole host of masculine traits.
So what does it mean to lead from the feminine? Knowing there is still much more learning to come, here are a few I’m beginning to practice:
- Trusting myself. Tuning inward rather than leaning solely on external cues.
- Recognizing that my natural modes of compassion, caregiving, connecting, relating, empowering, and supporting are real and deeply powerful.
- Calibrating situations with my intuition, as much as my critical thinking.
- Continuing to forge meaningful relationships — The prolific Austrian-American physicist Fritjof Capra has a thoughtful quote that rings true to me: “The way towards an eco-literate society involves a shift from a focus on counting things to a focus on mapping relationship.”
I can’t make it to the Cultivating Women’s Leadership, a week-long retreat that brings together women from all diverse cultures, ages and backgrounds to learn from each other and investigate together insidious internalizations often held about leadership. Learning among a group of women about feminine leadership sounds like a wonderful set up. But for now I must settle for learning by trial and error with my tribe of men. The experience will be much less supportive and tear-free, but that’s the work I have before me.