Women, Power and the Transformation of Leadership

This was this morning published over at the Women’s Media Center.

Ever had the experience of awaking at night from a nightmare where you’re onstage to give a speech and find you’ve forgotten entirely what you had planned to say? It happened to me but I was wide awake.

Last January, I was slated to give a keynote to a packed house of activist women who had traversed winter snows to attend the SeeJaneDo Passion to Action conference in Grass Valley, California. The speaker to precede me was Bioneers co-founder Nina Simons.

I’d had a chance to meet Nina at breakfast that morning and was eager to hear her talk about the women’s leadership program she’s created within Bioneers, a diverse global coalition of environmental groups that connect to leverage their common mission, which is nothing less than saving the planet. Like so many social movements, Nina told me over hearty biscuits and country gravy, the majority of environmental volunteers doing on-the-ground work are women—but the leadership was primarily men.

Nina began her speech, and my wide-awake nightmare began to unfold. Yes, my notes were neatly tucked away in my folder, and yes, I knew exactly what I wanted to tell the women assembled. The problem? Nina was giving my speech. Almost word for word, and definitely idea for idea.

Her personal journey to leadership paralleled mine. She eventually recognized that she had spent many years subsuming herself to a movement and an organization that she loved beyond measure, but in a voice not sourced from the well of her own power or initiation. It was a mirror image of the wake-up call I had after I left my 30-year career of leadership with Planned Parenthood in 2005, and proceeded to continue my pattern of speaking in someone else’s voice when I co-wrote Kathleen Turner’s memoir, Send Yourself Roses, the year after that.

Nina’s call to women to redefine power on their own terms—she says “power with and through” whereas I say “power to” in contrast to the prevailing dominance model of “power over”—was almost identical to one of the “9 Ways” power tools in my new book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. I too was all pumped up to tell these women activist leaders that the first step to embracing our power is to define our own terms, before others define us.

“Women are negotiating power in new ways, understanding it as something sacred that runs within us each and all,” said Nina. “Our relationship with power is a spiritual one rarely acknowledged by the metrics or philosophers. Until we redefine that relationship, we will stay stuck in our unfinished revolution,” said my speech notes.

My underlying point, and Nina’s, is that we women have been dancing to someone else’s socially constructed tune for millennia. Even if we like the melody we need to awaken to its origins, get clear about where we are co-opted or disempowered by a culture that does not value us, and take the initiative to move to our own authentic rhythms so that we can be unlimited in the way we live and lead.

I was simultaneously filled with delight at having found a soul mate and terrified that I could add nothing to the conversation because she had stated this basic leadership skill so beautifully. My mind was doing its own little dance to reorganize my speech.

Then Nina launched into the second half of her speech and I entered the even worse nightmare where you see yourself naked on stage. She was poetically discussing the power of sharing stories. My ninth power tool, the one I had built the entire second half of my speech around, is “Tell your story.”

How was it that a woman I had never met before that day was giving the speech I had written?

Here’s what I think: the congruence of our two stories, Nina’s and mine, is a reflection of something that is happening in the United States, and even globally.

This is women’s moment. At least one woman has shattered almost every glass ceiling, and doors are cracked enough to get through them. We’re better educated than men, vote in greater percentages, and this year became half the U.S. workforce. Feminism—along with reproductive technologies that give women choices to separate biology from destiny—has changed the culture so profoundly that young women grow up believing they can be anything they want to be and young men assume that young women will follow their own paths.

Studies from the World Bank, McKinsey and Co. and elsewhere show that more women around the decision table result in better decisions in politics and business. Maria Shriver declared this a Women’s Nation, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn say the moral imperative of the 21st century is the empowerment of women, marketers know we buy 85 percent of all consumer goods and make their pitches accordingly. Women have the very leadership skills the world needs right now. It’s women’s moment in so many ways, but do we know it yet? That’s where the work is yet to be done.

The power of the platform women now have, like all power when redefined as the power to, or through or with, is infinite—not a zero sum game like power over, in which if I take a slice of the pie there’s less for you. Shifting our definition of power from power over to power to enables us to move from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention to do good things in the world. Power over is passé; power to is the next iteration of leadership. Power over is from Mars; power to is from Venus.

So what did I do? I told the truth: Nina gave my speech so now we’re going to take it to the next level and put those power tools to practical action.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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