Welcoming the Feminine

Welcoming the Feminine Dimensions of Leadership

This is a chapter from Judy Brown’s book

A Leader’s Guide to Reflective Practice

Trafford Publishing Victoria BC Canada

ISBN: 1-4251-0445-2

Welcoming the Feminine Dimensions of Leadership

Over these writings I bent my head.

Now you are considering them.  If you

Turn away I will look up: a bridge

That was there will be gone.

For the rest of your life I will stand here,

Reaching across.

William Stafford

This writing is an invitation to explore territory that is tough, full of uncertainties, confusions.  A friend tells me that when there are no words and still we know we must persist, we are in the presence of the transcendent. That is perfect territory for a poet, for whom words are at the heart of the matter, and yet for whom the act of writing is always, like following the tracks of a small animal in fresh snow, an effort to point toward the elusive, the paradoxical, the transcendent.  I ask you to join me in that process.

I am aware, as a leader and as a woman, of how difficult it is to capture in precise words the dimensions of leadership that collect around the notion of the feminine.   For I am using the word “feminine” not as relating to a particular gender, but as a quality within us all.  And I am using the term “leadership” not as conferred by a particular role, or high position, but as a human capacity and orientation widely available  although not always evident.  And were that not challenge enough, I am urging that we integrate the feminine dimensions in healthy partnership with the masculine dimensions, within us and around us.   

The processes and concepts are elusive. Captured by the eastern notion of the Yin and Yang, yes, but elusive.   Wordless.  

Still, men and women who struggle to lead in healthy ways tell me that they recognize in themselves and others the hunger for a balance of the two orientations in their own lives, their relationships and their organizations.  So to honor their efforts, and with their encouragement, I have set out to put in place some trail markers on a path we each travel in our own way.  I hope this writing will serve more as a question than an answer perhaps, and as an invitation to explore a question that makes innate sense to many of us, out of our instinctive hunger for wholeness in our lives our relationships and our organizations. 

Here is the question before us:  How might we more fully invite and welcome the feminine dimension of leadership in our organizations, our relationships and our selves?   

My natural way to begin this paper?  To think of the lessons of my life, the stories.  To think of colleagues who have helped me wrestle with this question.  To talk with people.  To look at poems, my own and others, that might be instructive.  To recall books that have shifted my thinking.  To think of what might be helpful to others, particularly practical things—processes, principles and practices.  And to invite you into the same process of sorting and sifting among the threads that are important to you.

I ask myself, “Can I footnote people, friends and colleagues, not just books and traditional sources?  Can I cite my own life experience, not some other external authority, and ask questions rather than have answers?”  Those are, for me, the natural ways to engage in this work, and perhaps I am intuitively reaching toward some of the feminine dimensions of work, of leadership, which I am attempting to write about.

Then I find myself asking, “Why should my personal story, my experience of this discernment matter?  Why should yours count either?  You can’t footnote experience.  You can’t cite people’s lives and their impact on us.”

Or can we?  That is the question that the feminine dimension of leadership poses for all of us.  How do we know?   What are the many ways?  How do we lead?  Can we take to heart the Quaker adage, “Let your life speak”?  

Now I shift from an internal dialogue to the article at hand.

I used to wonder what the differences were between women as leaders and men as leaders. I wanted to believe that there would be definitive and perceivable differences between the leadership of men and the leadership of women. I no longer think there are.  I still have moments when I wish there were, but I haven’t seen those differences, and research doesn’t seem to have uncovered them.  

One can look at one or another woman leader and notice how she leads differently from one or another male leader.  I think of Mary Robinson who, as head of state in Ireland, understanding the power of symbol, put the light in the window.  But one can also notice women leaders who lead in ways that we would consider more masculine.  And one can observe that men show a similar broad range of leadership approaches.

Our observation is complicated by the fact that our minds slip from the word feminine (which embraces a collection of qualities which we all possess to some extent), to the word female (the gender).  Like a car that keeps slipping out of gear, we slide from the qualities to the gender. From “feminine” to “female.”  The two are not the same.  Language fails us.

Yet many of us have a sense that the feminine dimensions of leadership–the more personal and inner, the more diffuse, the more creative and artistic, the more holistic and nature-centered, the more inclusive and welcoming—have often been silenced by organizational work processes, structures and norms. 

Carol Frenier in her book, Business and the Feminine Principle defines the feminine dimension in terms of four primary attributes: 1) diffuse awareness 2) a feel for the quick of the moment 3) acceptance of the cycles of life 4) a feel for deep community. Other researchers and theorists have strengthened my awareness of the feminine and masculine, and the need for each to value the other:  Henry Mintzberg’s Crafting Strategy a classic HBR piece on strategy as a process that involves both art and logic; Deborah Tannen’s ground breaking work on communication dynamics between men and women; Carol Gilligan’s classic In a Different Voice that reframed ethical dilemmas to include the voice and perspective of women; Carol Pearson’s The Hero Within which helps us understand that all the classic stories of human development have both feminine and masculine dimensions, and Irini Rockwell’s recent book on the honoring of the masculine and feminine in the Buddhist understanding of human relationships.  

Still one can cite specific ways that some organizations seem to inadvertently dampen and discourage the feminine dimension (in men as well as women).   As a result those organizations end up both dismissive of, and starved for, the missing feminine energies in their organizational life.  Sometimes they swing from one extreme to another—first convinced that the “soft stuff” is what they need, and then convinced that the “bottom line” is all that matters.   The lack of integration, respect, steadiness and balance saps the energy of both men and women.  Women are often singularly saddled with the hard emotional work of the organization, and with other feminine work such as community building, aesthetics—if those dimensions get attended to at all.  And of course, as people realize that only part of them is welcome in organizational life, men as well as women cease to welcome that other dimension within themselves.   Thus, increasingly the organization is in danger of being blind-sided by realities that are related to the feminine, including cultural dynamics, emotional dynamics, creative potential and aesthetic dimensions.  This is a world with which most of us have painful first-hand experience.

By the same token, as you may be thinking, in work cultures that are historically feminine it may be necessary to explicitly invite the masculine dimension into the leadership of everyone, so the few men don’t have to carry it alone.  That necessity of re-balancing has become clearer to me in my work in large urban libraries, where the culture is traditionally more feminine.

If leaders want to tap and focus human energies and talents, they must model and create welcome for diverse gifts and perspectives, including the energies of the masculine and feminine.   And if we are to have essential balance and integration of the feminine and the masculine, we need to make sure the feminine (in men and in women) is as welcome and invited into organizational life and into the work of leadership as is the masculine. And that there is real integration of the two within us and around us.

If that work were easy, I doubt that writing this paper would have stirred up as much dialogue around me and within me as it has.   As a fairly driven executive for many years, and as a poet, I continue to seek ways to hold onto my own commitment for integration, balance and the presence of both the masculine and feminine in my own life, as well as in the life of the organizations with which I work.  

As I facilitate dialogues and design learning experiences with organizations, I learn much about that integration. And I am able to collect, practice and share some notions that seem to entice the feminine energies back into our organizational lives and to help those feminine energies become rooted, particularly within institutions that have evolved in a more masculine field—for example manufacturing, universities, science and engineering-based firms, even symphonies. Such processes are not unfamiliar to us: they include story telling, community building, inquiry and listening, creative practices like music, poetry, drama or art, and forms of dialogue.  Such processes place a high value on participation and inclusion, and elicit more presence than presenting, more listening than lobbying, more creating than constructing, more discovery than direction.  

While the challenge of carving out welcoming space for feminine energies in masculine cultures has been at the heart of my work as I have moved among institutions of all kinds, it has not occurred to me to frame what I do in that way.  It is more natural for me to speak of the challenge of creating welcome for all perspectives, all voices, all gifts, all kinds of knowledge and experience.  And particularly creating welcome for the voices oft silenced.  Yet I remain aware that often those silenced are voices (be they male or female) speaking from the feminine orientation.

While more feminine processes are often seen at first glance as “soft,” many of them are solid as the mountains and have demonstrated their power over centuries.  Some derive, at least in part, from traditional and aboriginal societies.   For example, I remain indebted to my Native American colleague Paula Underwood Spencer whose book Who Speaks for Wolf provides the business logic for inclusion, and whose practice of the Rule of Six teaches us the use of story and scenario to help us break out of whatever thinking box we’re in.  Some processes come from long spiritual tradition.  For example the questioning process utilized in the Courage To Teach programs of Parker Palmer, is derived from a 300-year old Quaker process.  

Oddly many of these same traditional processes and patterns are paralleled by the contemporary work of organizational theorists who have designed practices like Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology, World Café.  The research support for such approaches is laid out most compellingly for me, in the work of Marcial Losada, Deborah Tannen and Robert Ginnett among others.  So we might say that science and tradition seem to be taking us in similar directions—toward the active and intentional inclusion of what’s often been missing: the feminine dimension in leadership.

Still in today’s results oriented, bottom-line focused organization, these more feminine practices are often experienced as soft and counter-cultural–even when they have proved to clearly impact the financial bottom line, and even when they are promoted by the men and women leading the organization.  It is as if we are seized by the anxiety that is provoked by their being different from the intentional, focused, linear and logical organizational processes, which are more usual, if not satisfying processes.  And that anxiety prompts our retreat from the presence of the feminine into the familiar arms of a narrower logic and bottom line–not realizing that the very orientation from which we retreat may well be the path that will serve a fuller logic and a richer bottom line.    

Whether introduced by men or women, feminine approaches often run into to the cultural norms of the “traditional” leadership model as well as the more masculine energies that had been running the show.  But that doesn’t mean they are at odds with individual male leaders, certainly not some of the ones I’ve worked with.  I see men joining with their women colleagues in the discovery, recovery, articulation and introduction of feminine leadership processes, and in important instances, living them into being.  For example, I think of….

Michael Jones and I, at the invitation of the School of Engineering at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, facilitating an engineering-focused conference on systems learning, using music and poetry to link workshops and keynotes designed to stimulate different ways of thinking.  By the end of three days of this way of working together, in a world of round tables, engineers with whom I’d worked for years in the auto plants, began to hand me folded slips of paper.  “Here,” one or another would say, “It’s a poem I wrote.”  Secret notes from secret poets.   

My physician-leader colleague, Brian Campion, collaborating on the design of a session on dialogue, noting that somehow in a day of our walking around my neighborhood and talking, telling each other important stories of how we ended up where we were, and asking each other questions, he’d found himself being wiser than he thought he could be.  He didn’t know how it had happened, he said, but he wanted to know how to create that result.

Tense union-management dynamics that shifted suddenly when one of the young hot-shot big eight accounting firm consultants talked openly and with evident emotion about his critically ill newborn son, and a crusty senior union leader whose wife had been critically ill for a long time, generously offered the younger man encouragement and hope.

An executive who told me how he finally helped folks move beyond their grief at having to close the founding unit of their fortune 500 firm.  “It was a ‘buggy whip’ story,” he said, “And no jobs were lost.  Nobody disagreed with the action, and yet nobody could move on.  We were stuck.  So I did the only thing a thinking engineer could do: I ordered a casket and had it, and flowers, placed in the lobby of the corporate headquarters, and we had a funeral for the old business, and folks who’d been part of that business unit came, and we sang songs, and people cried, and we buried that sucker.  And then we could get on with our work.”   

One can see in each of these experiences, the intuitive introduction of, or the unexpected emergence of, a feminine dimension of leadership. How do we sketch a full range of such qualities?  And how do we more intentionally invite them into our leadership work?

The most straightforward way for me to sketch the range of qualities that point toward the feminine orientation in leadership is to lay out word pairs, the first of which points toward the feminine, the second of which points to the masculine. Remember the idea of trail-signs, however: these are not the territory, they are just words to point us toward the territory. These are not meant to be definitive, nor exhaustive, but rather suggestive of the differences that we are pointing toward.  And if our minds would let us think that way, we would hold them as dimensions not at odds with each other, but necessary to one another, and resident within each of us.  But our minds have minds of their own….

Toward the   Toward the

Feminine   Masculine

Welcome Boundaries

Partnership Competition

Inquiry Advocacy

Ritual  Rigor

Curiosity Certainty

Wondering  Knowing

Appreciating Judging

Accepting Asserting

Listening Talking

Nurturing Challenging

Stories  Analysis

Humanities Sciences

Appreciating  Challenging

Inviting Limiting

Empathy Objectivity

Poetry  Analysis

Music  Words

Art  Science

Creating Building

Space  Material

Spirit  Object

Sketching Stating

Exploring Evaluating

Opening Choosing

Accepting Insisting

Emergence Strategy

Attention Intention

Caring Risking

Toward the   Toward the

Feminine     Masculine

I have always thought of the feminine and masculine, and these word pairs, as dancing with each other, as if each word in a pair above is in a continual dance with the other word, in a dynamic relationship that is changing and in which the two are always connected.  The symbol of the yin and yang approximate that relationship, suggesting a curved delineation of a difference in which each holds space for the other, in which each rests in the other.

Yet the balanced, respectful dance between masculine and feminine is not easy to hold in organizational life.  At least in our culture.  We get the idea of the integration, the balance.  And then we forget it.  Work cultures schooled in one (the masculine, for instance) but unconsciously yearning for the other (the feminine) may swing between them, rather than center in a way that holds both.  It seems human at times to want to choose one as better, or blame one as worse.  Or in an enthusiasm for one, to drive out all vestige of the other.   And even those of us who think we understand the dimensions and the balance, may often lose our grip on our understanding of balance and respect and need to be reminded by our colleagues or by life.

It seems to me that leadership work is about just that—holding both sides, and valuing both sides.  It is, for instance, about being a precise, disciplined and curious scientist and an aware and gifted story-teller.  It is about all the pairs of words above, and in each case not setting down one for the other, but rather recognizing it takes both habits of mind and both disciplines of spirit to find our path forward as individuals, institutions and communities.  Like a parent of twins, we hold both at once.  We honor the masculine and feminine, within us and around us, and in doing so help the organizations and causes for which we care, to find a healthy path.  The feminine is needed not because it trumps the masculine, but because it has been missing from the necessary partnership of the two leadership dimensions.  

As each of us looks at the list of word pairs, above, or creates lists of our own making, other stories may well float to mind, stories of when we have tried to choose one side over the other, and life has reminded us of the necessity for both.   It is then, I think, that we are moved to adopt a commitment to inviting the presence of both the masculine and feminine into organizational life, and to welcome the feminine, as the oft under represented dimension, whenever it shows up, and to encourage, nurture and amplify it.  

In my own life, I had the concept of balance, but living the balance was never easy.  Again and again, I could feel myself pulled into the competitive dynamics that exercised one dimension of my gifts, and silenced the other.  Being nominated for the White House Fellows program was one such pull: convinced in my heart of hearts that I was not White House Fellow material, I nonetheless figured I could learn something useful by going through the selection process.  So I plowed ahead.  I cleared one hurdle (surprisingly) after another, until I was in the final 32 from which 15 Fellows would be selected for a year’s assignment as assistant to a US cabinet secretary or the President.  

In midst of this competitive hurdle-jumping, my phone rang one day.  The caller introduced himself saying that he worked at the Pentagon and he had noticed that I was among the White House Fellow finalists.  He explained his reason for calling: “I went through the selection process a few years back.  I had no idea what to expect, and I found it fairly unsettling.  So I’m calling to say that if you want to talk through the process, or do some practice questions, or if there is anything I can do to help, please give me a call.  Here’s my number.” 

I took down the man’s name and his number.  We talked for a little while that day, and I never felt the need to call him back.  Yet I was profoundly encouraged by the generosity and welcome from this stranger.  

I was aware that what he did that day (his gentle, generous reaching out from the Pentagon, his welcome to me, his offer of help) was a kind of feminine leadership.  I kept his name and number, and later when I became a White House Fellow, the name on that scribbled slip of paper meant more to me: Colin Powell.  Powell’s generous call came long before he was head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or United States Secretary of State, the position from which he has most recently retired.  I keep that phone call in mind to stay clear in my own understanding that this kind of energy or approach, transcends gender, career role, and background. 

How then do we create conditions where both the feminine and the masculine perspectives are invited, valued, celebrated, and heard?  In organizations where the feminine dimension has been historically less visible, less openly articulated and less appreciated than the masculine, how do we create conditions for it to be more fully present?  What guidance can we offer ourselves?

First I think we do well to turn to each other, to pay attention to our own experiences, and to learn from those communities of practice that inform our work in organizations.  Increasing our own awareness of the practices, processes and guidance that shift the balance in a healthy way, is an important step.  And sharing what we are learning in that process is key.  

Thus, I include below some of my own collection of practices, processes and guidance, and invite you to similarly share yours.   

Guidance about processes:

There are many work processes in which the feminine dimension is deeply imbedded.  Some are very familiar, although we might not think of them in this context.  Using these processes increases the presence of the feminine dimension of leadership in the organization.  And the disciplined and regular use of these structures helps those feminine dimensions take root.   Here are some on which I rely:

Check-in and Check out. This simple process for beginning and ending work creates space for all voices, and invites all manner of contribution.  Thus it sets, by example, important norms of inclusion and openness.  

Dialogue.  Dialogue creates a communication space for listening deeply and for becoming increasingly aware of ones own thinking as well as the perspectives of others.  

Open Space Processes.  There are many variants on these deeply democratic processes for shaping common purpose, work and strategy collectively.  A good starting place is the work of Harrison Owen.

Creative Processes.  Non-verbal processes involving art forms of various kinds help people shift out of words and into other forms of knowing.  There are many processes that provide simple introductions into the world of the arts.  Useful starting places include the work of Julia Cameron, Frederik Franck,  Michael Jones’ book, Creating an Imaginative Life.  and Michael Gelb.

Appreciative Inquiry. This process helps us balance our trained tendency to problem-solve, with the ability to spot what is going well and amplify it.  The process also brings to a conscious level that which is the deepest positive motivation within people.  David Cooperrider is the innovator who created this process.

World Café.   This process allows any number of folks to develop intimate and focused conversations around an important topic, in a process that can quite quickly create visible threads of shared understanding.  See Juanita Brown’s book on the subject. 

Clearness Committee.  This process for exploring a dilemma creates exceptionally safe space in which a person can come to greater clarity by responding to completely open questions posed by a small group of people over a period of three hours.  Parker Palmer details that process as part of his work in The Courage to Teach.   

Story Telling.  Perhaps the source of this would be the human tradition around fires, for millennia.    Invite story by asking genuinely curious questions, and letting story unfold.   

Scenario Work.  Scenario telling is the process of creating alternative stories of the future (or the past) and rather than trying to figure out which one is true, holding all of them, and watching the unfolding events.  It increases our ability to take in all kinds of data.  The contemporary form of this is sketched in Peter Schwartz’ The Art of the Long View and the timeless form is represented in Paula Underwood’s Rule of Six.   

Guidance about principles:

Here are some principles which help me create more balanced spaces–spaces in which the feminine is invited, cherished and celebrated, along with the masculine:

Pay close attention to the implicit messages of space and design. Use circles, natural light, color, living plants, and beauty of all kinds.  Once the leader begins to pay attention to these dimensions, others seem to follow suit.  Recently, before we began a planning retreat, a local police chief was rearranging work tables in more of a circle because, as he told me, “It’s too squared off and we can’t see each other.”  We laughingly reminded each other that all good work begins with rearranging furniture.

Balance advocacy with inquiry.  Marcial Losada’s research on successful leadership teams reminds us that those teams balance their communication 50/50 between advocacy and inquiry.  The teams that are in the tank tend to be closer to 80/20 in favor of advocacy. 

Notice what upsets you about the leadership approach of others and explore how that voice or approach is accepted or denied by you within you.  Pay attention to the balance of the feminine and masculine within you.

In framing every dilemma, make sure that both the male energies and the female energies are honored and balanced.  In your response as a leader, and in all the other design dimensions of your organization, watch carefully and ask others to be on the watch for dynamics that subtly drive out the feminine perspective.  Invite both the masculine and feminine, and seek a “third” way whenever folks are tempted to chose one way over the other.

Intentionally set organizational norms that invite and hold both male and female leadership dimensions.  I am drawn to threesomes of norms (perhaps the threesome naturally holds masculine, feminine and the third way, all at once).   Here are my favorite examples–

From the work of the Courage to Teach community the threesome of creating space that is bounded, charged, welcoming. 

From Buddhist practice the three energies of fierceness, tenderness and playfulness.

From the norms of a middle-school community in which the students naturally took off muddy shoes after a rainy-day fire drill: Take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of this place.

From the computer simulation of birds flocking, rules that create conditions for random dots on a computer screen to flock, naturally as birds do: don’t get too close to the next bird, go about the same speed as every body else, sort of fly toward the center of the flock. 

Guidance about personal practices: 

It is increasingly evident that welcoming both feminine and masculine is about more than just the external world–it is also about the world within each of us, where the masculine and feminine create their own relationship.   I have come to realize that I need inner practices that help me hold that understanding.  It has become increasingly clear to me that if the presence of those capacities, orientations, or differences within me are not accepted and cherished there, it is unlikely that I can usefully participate in creating a workable integration, a creative relationship of the masculine and feminine energies in the external world, in the world of organizations. 

That realization has pointed me toward several personal practices that are increasingly important to me including time in silence, listening, meditation, journaling, arts of all kinds, and being in nature.  I realize that each of us has our own personal approaches to creating balance from within.  My purpose in sharing my list is only to suggest the value of each of us attending to such practice in a way uniquely suited to who we are as a human being.  

Leaders create conditions that are either enlivening or deadening.  Like architects or designers we create space—emotional space, thinking space, working space.  Our ability to serve depends on how well that space frees the resources around us, including the energies of the feminine and masculine dimensions of leadership within us, and around us.  

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