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Over a decade ago, when I began to do this work around women’s voices, there was one quiet, deep desire at the heart of it.
In those early days, I spent evenings and weekends (the hours outside of my day job) in a little rented office space, working with my first coaching clients.
Those clients were in their 20’s and 70’s and every age between. Some worked in business, some in the social sector, some the arts. They were mostly women – and a few good men. They came to coaching because they longed for some kind of more – more self-expression, more joy, more impact advancing the causes they cared about.
And here’s the thing: they were all remarkable. They were thoughtful, conscientious human beings. They were the kind of people who could responsibly run our institutions and evolve our society for the better. As I sat across from them, inspired by their visions for change, their very decency, I often thought, “These are the kind of people I wish were in charge.”
That is the desire at the heart of all this work on women’s playing big: may people like them – like you – hold more power to shape our world.
And yet, people like them are not the ones in charge. The ones in charge mostly have one skin color, and don’t have ovaries. The ones in charge all too frequently aren’t the ones with the best ideas or deepest commitment to service; they’re just the ones who have been the hungriest for power and most strategic in obtaining it.
It was this gap, this strange disjunct between merit and power, that stirred me. I saw it in the most proximate of contexts – the businesses I worked with and the communities I was a part of – and in the most distant of contexts – the leaders of countries and major institutions around the globe.
Listening closely in those early coaching conversations, I often thought about how the very same qualities that would have made my clients incredible leaders also made them reticent toward leadership. Their humility. Their awareness of their own weakness. Their consciousness of the great responsibility that comes with power.
All of these qualities would have made them just the kind of power-holders we want, but those qualities also meant they saw themselves as not up to the task. And, their profound care for people, and fear of not doing right by others, made leadership feel that much more daunting and difficult to them.
Plus, they had enough inner stability to be satisfied with a relatively quiet life made up of meaningful work and rich relationships. They didn’t want to prioritize the public sphere over the personal one. This too would have made them great leaders – the kind who wouldn’t chase endless title upgrades because of an inner wound. The kind who model work-personal balance, and who would endeavor to help others have the same kind of simple, healthy life that they enjoyed.
The fact that many visionary, brilliant women cherish their quiet, relatively anonymous lives may very much be an indicator of mental health. But that very same quality of contentment means they often don’t have an inner need to seek out roles of power.
I’ll tell you something that’s hard to admit, uncomfortable to talk about. When I describe my work in my bio, or a cocktail party, I call it leadership development for women. Because that is what I do, no question. But if you look at the text I use on my website or in the description of my courses, you’ll see that I never use the term leader, or leadership development.
Why? I learned early on that the women I’m talking to do not respond well to those terms. They – and I too – often feel things related to “leadership” are not for us, not desirable to us.
I can understand the reasons why. Our notion of “leading” has been tainted by the negative examples of it that we see. We learn in girlhood that raising our hand to say “I can lead” or even worse “I want to lead” can lead to personal attacks and social abandonment or shaming.
So I don’t blame us, as individuals. But this does leave us with a collective predicament.
A system in which clever, immature people are among the most motivated to seek positions of power.
A system in which those of us who would be most appropriately daunted in the face of the responsibilities of leadership feel too humbled to sign ourselves up for the job.
This gap between power and merit is now visible in stark relief in every headline we read. In this pandemic time, I find that everywhere I look, I see examples of ordinary people acting with extraordinary courage, love, and wisdom – while many of those who hold the most power act out of immaturity, greed and blame.
I don’t have any easy answers on how to shift who seeks and who is given power. But it’s a question we need to find answers to. The question might inform how we think about political races and the funding of them. It might inform what we teach our kids about what leadership is and what it is for. It might inform what forms of leadership we push ourselves to take on – even if uncomfortable.
What must change, for us to marry ambition to humility, leadership to service, power to love?
P.S. More posts related to wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic here.
Photo by: Joshua Hanson