by Miki Kashtan, CPS Partnership Community
There is no simple way to “declare” our leadership to be feminist. Instead, feminist leadership is born of struggle and remains precarious. Internally, the struggle is to free ourselves from notions, perspectives, feelings, habits, and even desires we have internalized through patriarchal socialization. Externally, we are likely to run into obstacles, because patriarchal norms of leadership are internalized by others, too, and are encoded into the way our modern societies function.
Patriarchal norms shape the very definition of leadership, which conventionally stresses motivating others to follow, and has synonyms such as guidance, direction, control, management, and supervision. These words connote separation between leader and group, and unidirectional action, pointing to power as concentrated in the hands of the leader; the power of getting others to do what the leader deems best.
Leadership can also be defined from a perspective of care and responsibility rather than one of direction and control. This is consistent both with our pre-patriarchal legacy and with challenges to patriarchal norms. It also matches Carol Gilligan’s findings of a different trajectory of moral development that moves on an axis of care, responsibility, and relationship, rather than progressively more abstracted rules that are applied without consideration of relational context. Both our evolutionary legacy and the threat of extinction that the patriarchal path has brought us to point in the same direction: it’s time to fully re-sculpt what it means to show up as a leader.
This means nothing less than facing and transcending the inner and outer pressures of patriarchal norms of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness, reclaiming instead the foundation of interdependence, generosity, and choice as guideposts for a different, feminist, approach to leadership. For this reason, I choose to see leadership as an orientation to life rather than a particular position of authority.
I define leadership as the willingness to take responsibility for and care for the whole in interdependent relationship with others, even when those others are not doing so themselves.
Here are some of the core themes and questions I consider vital for continuing to understand and live into feminist leadership.
Interdependence: how do we foreground our inseparability from those we lead? How do we create peer relationships while honoring our own experience and authority?
Support: how do we prioritize setting up robust support structures for ourselves to sustain our capacity to live and lead in ways that are so far outside of patriarchal norms? What do such structures actually look like?
Power: how do we mobilize resources, including our own power as leaders, in true service to the whole, including those whose actions or opinions most frighten or upset us? How do we attend to the reality that so many people are conditioned to defer to anyone who steps into leadership, especially in the context of structural power differences?
Transparency: how do we move beyond either suppressing our inner lives or letting them run us without choice, and towards embracing our full experience and choosing whether, when, and how to share what is inside us? How do we learn better what does or does not serve the present purpose?
Integration: how do we move beyond either/or approaches to an ongoing process of integrating seemingly opposite approaches? How do we increase the likelihood that groups will find solutions that work for everyone even in polarized situations?
Empathy and love: how do we engage better with people who challenge our ability to stay open-hearted to all, to be affected by what’s important to them, and to honor our own perspective?
Courage and humility: How do we grow our capacity, skills, resilience, and presence, and maintain our clarity that we are no better than anyone else? In particular, how do we stay open to learning and discovery, remembering that we cannot know any answer better than what we can grapple with collectively and collaboratively?
Not knowing, and learning in community may well be what’s needed for a future for humanity to be possible. Developing rigorous understanding and practices of feminist leadership is, by necessity, a collaborative project that takes many of us, across the world, to co-develop.
 Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice, 1982.
Miki Kashtan is a practical visionary pursuing a world that works for all, based on principles, tools, and systems that support true collaboration without compromising efficiency. She has taught and consulted with individuals and organizations on five continents. She is the author of Reweaving Our Human Fabric and blogs at The Fearless Heart.