February carries along with it all the male/female baggage humanity has lugged around for millenia. The ides of February are no less portentous for the yin and yang of gender-based relationships than the ides of March were for old Julius Caesar himself. In terms of organizational leadership and the much ballyhooed discussion of the effectiveness of male and female leaders and leadership traits, I would suggest a common ground…a safe and amicable place where X and Y chromosomes can come to mingle and imbibe each other’s graces and gifts. This safe place of growth and development lies within each of us..it is our “Inner Other”.
One can scarcely open a business publication lately without being bombarded by fifty shades of Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg and Mary Barra. Over the last year the topic of Female Leadership has had more ink thrown its way than the upper bodies of the combined rosters of the NBA and NFL. Business media, like all media, tend to regularly cycle through a dog-eared list of catchy topics and for some time now one of the favorites has been ‘Female Leadership’ in general, and noteworthy individual female leaders in particular. I am not female but if I were I think I might be a little miffed by media’s periodic, recurring epiphany regarding the efficacy of female leadership attributes. Honestly, how many more times must we “discover” female leadership, and how many more times must we endure the side-by-side lists of male and female leadership traits; pitting “Warrior” vs “Caregiver”. Seriously? Can we not, once and for all, accept the reality that females are eminently qualified to lead successfully, and get about the task of using that information to transform and integrate our leadership development itinerary?
It’s been 23 years since Sally Helgesen gifted us with four splendid examples of how women neither need to become like men nor do they necessarily have to play by men’s rules in order to lead successfully. In her portrayal of the fundamental differences in how men and women approach leadership she deftly describes where the “female advantage” comes from. I believe a fair reading of her foundational work might conclude: For the majority of men it’s largely about the “what”, the “event” and the “win” – and for women it’s much more about the “how”, the “process”, and the “context”. She builds this comparison not in a customarily competitive context where “what” and “how” reside at opposites ends of an either/or attribute spectrum. Rather, she coaxes us to picture them comprising the intertwined, complementary halves of the Tao symbol – yin and yang; non-dual; female/male energies in harmony and interaction. Rather than dismiss or disparage the Warrior archetype she describes how each of the four female subjects of her book, “has mastered the Warrior skills of discipline, will, and struggle necessary to achieve success in the public realm, but then moved beyond them to provide models of what leadership can become when guided by the feminine principles.” In other words each of the women profiled in Helgesen’s diaries has learned how to honor and animate their “inner other”.
Thinking back, even to grade school, I don’t recall ever fully embracing the “warrior/hero” mentality so prevalent in male leadership lore down through the millennia. Maybe I was just a wimp. Quite possibly I didn’t warm up to power and domination because I was small and skinny and not at all likely to influence or intimidate physically or psychically. I guess it’s possible my tendency to default to reason and collaboration was nothing more than a rational accommodation to size and stature, but deeper reflection makes me realize I came by my more-feminine leadership tendencies much more organically. The two strongest influences in my life, my mother and father, role-modeled by their words and actions, a convincing alternative to stereotypical male behavior.
My mother could be an outwardly dominant figure who was able to command attention and deference in most situations. A registered nurse who scrubbed floors and took in ironing to put herself through nursing school in the 40’s, this woman would have none of the doctor/male BS on the hospital floor, in the school principal’s office or occasional neighborhood dust-ups. But her hard-as-nails exterior belied the caring, compassionate, shaman-like spirit that was her true inner being, and I got to see her in the role of gentle healer more times than I can recall. My father, on the other hand, portrayed an almost-submissive exterior. But he was an intent listener; cleverly inclusive and collaborative, yet resolute. In organizational settings he was able to influence opinion, build a following and sway consensus – repeatedly becoming the leader of social clubs, sporting associations, and numerous church and civic organizations and activities. My father was a Conscious Leader and my mother embodied Helgesen’s “female advantage”.
What I observed in my parents from my earliest memories was what I believe Jung would describe as an ‘androgynous maturity’, an expression of both male and female energies, as complementary components of human psyche; an integration of anima and animus. In short, my parents had learned to honor and animate their “inner other” and this in turn is what I learned at their side. Consequently the inclination to listen, include, collaborate, nurture and connect – came as naturally to me as the instinct to pillage and plunder came to Julius Caesar, or the impulse to raid and acquire to Carl Icahn.
In the closing pages of “The Female Advantage”, Helgesen refers to the work of psychologist, Carol Pearson, where she describes the classic male and female heroic archetypes – the Warrior and the Martyr – and suggests we move beyond them “to acknowledge a new kind of hero that unites the qualities of both: the Magician”. In Pearson’s words, “At the Magician’s level dualities begin to break down. Magician’s see beyond the apparent dichotomies of male and female, ends and means, efficiency and humanity, mastery and nurturance, logic and intuition. Instead they focus on the interconnections that bind all human beings together and relate events to one another.”
It is the “Magicians” among us – competent, resolute, compassionate, mindful, conscious – who have learned to honor and animate both male and female leadership energies. If we are to survive and transcend the daunting dearth of enlightened leadership in the hallways of corporations worldwide, we must lose the focus on “male vs female”, and begin to encourage a transformative development of leaders who embrace both the anima and animus – men and women alike, learning to lead from their “Inner Other”.