Cultivate a Feminine Presence

Women’s history month celebrates the accomplishment of women in history, many of them unsung and many still unknown.   But it is also a time to consider how women can continue to make history. One way to do that is to redefine leadership by cultivating a feminine presence in the workplace and in our communities.

in my search for just the right words to express the feminine style of leadership I encountered during my interviews with so many successful women leaders, whom I call Iron Butterflies, from all walks of life, I eventually settled on the phrase “feminine presence.” The phrase encompasses a woman’s preference for a holistic perspective over a compartmentalized one, for collaboration over self-interest and for inclusion over exclusion. If women are truly connecting to their experiences as wives, daughters, mothers, we will see leadership through a different lens. In other words, a woman who wishes to develop her leadership skills, whether it be at a PTA meeting or a board meeting, should not rely on the male traits so often associated with conventional leadership but should instead, draw power from her natural feminine presence. Every woman has an opportunity and responsibility to take the lead and redefine leadership.

How you master your environment, how you deal with the unexpected and unknown, those unavoidable vulnerable moments of uncertainty, defines your character. It also characterizes your leadership, be it in business, in politics or any other type of social organization or context. The traditional masculine style of leadership deals with vulnerability and the challenges it poses in a singular way, emphasizing autonomy and glorifying the leader himself. It values and implements a mechanistic, goal-directed, hierarchical approach that engages linear thinking to fix problems, and compartmentalizes people into specific slots with specific labels. It’s all about certainty in an uncertain world.

In contrast, feminine presence adopts a holistic approach that sees both the one and the many. It invites and nurtures the whole person in a larger context, engages collective power to overcome obstacles and adopts a more organic, open-ended learn-as-you-go approach to achieving objectives. Often this natural and organic approach to challenges creates alternative, novel, environments that counter the entrenched domination culture and challenge the status quo. However, this style of leadership often remains unseen and unrecognized.

A feminine presence serves to enhance all women’s capabilities, to elevate women who have not yet enjoyed their share of freedom, opportunities, and power. Women supporting women in mastering new skills and developing new strengths represents a radical act because it breaks a long historical cycle of women in competition with each other. Historically, patriarchy separated women from each other by positioning them to compete with each other for men, for jobs, for resources. Think about it. As recently as a hundred plus years ago, women couldn’t own property. By limiting women’s access to power and resources, women were limited in their opportunities to realize their full potential. While women naturally tend to support each other emotionally, they too often sublimated that tendency in the workplace. Women often haven’t learned to cover each other’s backs in the workplace. That’s changing. With so many young women participating today in team sports, women are learning the value of a group effort and mutual support. When women work together to develop themselves and each other in a nurturing, supportive environment, their combined feminine presence can accomplish more positive social change than any mechanistic problem-solver ever could.

Few women demonstrate this possibility more beautifully than the late Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan woman who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari created the Green Belt movement, a project designed to counter the deforestation in her native Kenya, where a corrupt government had allowed environmental destruction to go unchecked for decades. To date, women participating in the Green Belt movement have planted more than 30 million trees. Affectionately called “tree woman,” Wangari worked right along side her sisters, her head draped in a turquoise turban resplendent with African patterns, her smile as broad as the savanna. Wangari, a well-educated and intelligent woman, won a Kennedy scholarship to the US, studied at the University of Pittsburgh, and was the first woman in Eastern and Central Africa to earn a PhD in veterinary medicine from the University of Nairobi.

She started this movement in the simplest way, by responding to the needs of rural women for firewood, animal feed, and building materials. A small action produced a powerful outcome, a hallmark of feminine presence. She showed us that we can all make a difference by simply listening and responding to the need for change in our own worlds.

Wangari invited women to solve a big problem collaboratively, engaging their natural intelligence and common sense. As she has said, “African women in general need to know that it is OK for them to be the way they are–to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.” This, I believe, applies to all women. Fostering the innate wisdom of feminine presence that is in all of us connects us to our strength.

Understanding the innate wisdom of the women around her, Wangari planted a seed in fertile ground. The women needed to learn about broken social structures and bad governance and their rights as women, particularly in instances of rape and child abuse. Although the solution to these social issues would take time, the women realized they could do something right away. They could stop environmental degradation. They could start planting trees, which would serve their own immediate needs while healing Mother Nature.

Of course, Wangari faced the resistance of authoritarian powers, leaders who didn’t hold themselves accountable to the Kenyan people. Over the ensuing years she was arrested several times, imprisoned, and beaten up by hired thugs. Relentlessly, she stayed the course, nurturing women’s power and mastery, and employing her own and a collective feminine presence, not only to prevail but also to win global acknowledgment for her work. Wangari had not just planted seedlings; she had sown the seeds of change.

Wangari’s story offers both a literal and a metaphorical example of the power of feminine presence. Like Wangari, women as change agents continually fly into the stone walls of domination. Sometimes they seize a hammer and smash it down, but more often they choose a less adversarial path to deeper-rooted social change. Near the wall of domination, they plant a tree, the tree of women supporting women as they unite for change. The tree takes root, and as it grows, its roots spread under the wall, their strength eventually eroding and toppling it. Like the roots of a tree, women, grounded in themselves, connected to each other, and joined together in grassroots efforts, spread the roots of feminine presence that can undo the thickest walls. And make history.



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