Collective Feminist Leadership: Unlearning the Me, Me, Me

When words become buzz words, we should question whether the status quo is co-opting something that is aiming to transform the status quo. This article is an effort to ground feminist leadership in what the author(s) deem to be its essence: transformative collective power for the common good of all nature. This collective elaboration is only possible thanks to the diverse, deep learnings, struggles, wisdom, knowledge, analyses and visions that arise from the practice, documentations and dialogues of groups, organisations, movements and collective spaces from all over the world.

Aufkleber mit der Aufschrift "Curb your ego".

To go to the structural roots of the mainstream leadership paradigm and narrative, we need to look at the bigger picture: the current hegemonic Western-dominated society which is based on a (neo)colonial capitalist and neoliberal patriarchal system which encompasses all forms of discrimination, violence, oppression and dominance. This hegemonic system seeks to dominate the whole world-system, and a core aspect of this system revolves around individualism and competition.

Let’s start with unpacking what feminist leadership is not: it is not about women becoming CEOs, it is not about strong inspirational leaders spearheading or driving change, it is not about showing charisma, and it is not only about women.  

The trickiest thing about feminist leadership being talked about in mainstream and institutional narratives is the risk of it being framed in an individualistic, neoliberal way. We argue that the essence of feminist leadership – with leadership intended as the capacity to create change – is the collective aspect. It is about collective, transformative power and co-creation – not a nice “add on” to the patriarchal form of leadership and power that is widely dominant.  And, very importantly, it should not be translated only with women being leaders – feminist leadership is about everyone, and especially about identities that have been structurally marginalized and oppressed, playing a key role in co-creation.

“Transformative feminist leadership recognises the leadership capacity of every person in a change process because leadership is about committing to and taking responsibility for that larger change and contributing to it each in our own way. Framing feminist leadership in an individualistic framework, typical of the neoliberal patriarchal system, structures and narrative, equals to removing its transformative power. Let’s not allow for this to happen! It is vital to strengthen stories of feminist leadership to avoid this co-optation, as for us, feminist leadership = collective feminist leadership.

The whole nature of feminist leadership is about building collective leadership and power, so that there is no dynamic of leader/follower, protagonist/spectators, hero politician/voters, etc. This “celebrity/hero/inspirational leader” paradigm needs to be addressed as it profoundly clashes with a feminist vision of the future.

Leadership is a tricky word in itself. So is power. We chose to intentionally use these words as they are widely used and instrumentalized and we see collective feminist leadership as a tool to transform their significance and practice.

When something is radically aiming to transform the status quo, it risks co-optation by the status quo. And when something is radically transformative, it involves a deep and inner level of transformation, collective unlearning, and collective accountability and persistency. This transformation starts at the inner level, working on the self; it develops with co-learning and co-practicing feminist leadership within feminist spaces and within existing structures, transforming the way leadership is practiced and perceived; and continues by transforming structures towards being suited for a collective feminist leadership vision and for sustaining its practice, grounded in a deep level of organization, trust, collective accountability and collective care.

Why We Need Collective Feminist Leadership

The current widespread crisis of democracies is connected with the concurrent expansion of polarised politics, personalised self-centred political leadership and centralised power, and with the emergence of nationalist, populist and anti-feminist organized mobilisations. At the

same time, we see a more evident necessity of strong, sustainable, decentralised and resilient social movements. Decentralisation is not only needed for collective empowerment, accountability and collaboration, but also to ensure collective protection in the face of raising backlash and polarised societies.

We consider there is a need to transform existing dominant democratic governance systems to ones that focus on organised communities for the common good of all nature, in a collective, pluralistic, decentralised manner, and a core aspect for this is collective feminist leadership. We thus need to transform the meaning, the practice and the narrative of power. We need to build the We.

To rephrase Audre Lorde’s expression, we cannot build the “new” world with the current tools of the system of competition and oppression. We cannot have self-centred “political leaders” inspire change; we need change to come from the “bottom”, from the ground, from what and how we learn, from creating collective stories of change and transformation. We know from “unofficial” history that transformative systemic change happens this way – from movements, collective work, long-term sustained work by small-scale focus combining, but mainstream narratives keep diminishing that, and we keep learning about “idols”, “icons” and “masses”.

We need to re-signify the fundamental importance of our collective power, accountability, interconnectedness, interdependence and collective care, and  co-build structures and narratives that encourage others to take responsibility and belong in diverse collective spaces. We need to radically and structurally detoxify and heal from the systemic neoliberal narrative of leadership that frames who counts and what counts, what is success and who is successful, as generated and perpetuated by dominant media and in particular by social media.

This also means freeing ourselves from the neoliberal narrative of personal success, from the metrics that directly or indirectly pressure us to be the youngest, bravest, the first etc. In this self-centred system of rewarding/awarding (based on ego, scarcity, recognition, expectations on the individual (visible and invisible) and self-achievement) the individual is foregrounded and recognized; not the impact, not the cause, but the person. This narrative generates and perpetuates dominance, competition, and oppression - everything that we need to dismantle as feminists, together.

To move away from this system, collective feminist leadership creates a different “how”; a meaning, structures and processes around leadership and power based on different principles - feminist principles.

How We Can Sustain Collective Feminist Leadership

Building collective feminist leadership does not mean that individual exercise of power, accountability and responsibility are ignored, quite the contrary. One of the key elements of collective feminist leadership is developing shared trust and transparency, and a level of coordination and organization. Collective feminist leadership does not mean lack of structureless-ness. To sustain it in practice, there is a core focus on collective responsibility and accountability, strengthening resilience, and everyone has a specific role to play building on their energies, talents, and passions. There is clarity and interconnection of roles, decision-making tools and processes, balance between accountability to mission/goal/common good and collective nurturing, as well as radical honesty to surface and resolve conflict.

Collective feminist leadership is essential to build a feminist future together for the common good of all nature. If we all collectively lead in a feminist way, it forms the groundwork for a society without oppression, violence and discrimination. It would be naïve to say that this space would be free from unequal and oppressive power dynamics, but shared accountability and measures to keep that in check and to address that are at the core. It will take persistent and continuous work to embed a different way – unlearning the hegemonic paradigm - to perceive ourselves as beings that are part of a collective. It is fundamental that we co-build feminist spaces that can sustain this practice.

The key thing to highlight is that this is nothing new; this has been practiced in many diverse ways across the world, especially across movements and communities. It is a matter of learning, sharing, adapting, building on, co-creating and connecting practices, and finding ways that connect with our diverse contexts. It is not some abstract theory practiced, signified or called. It is a “how” rooted in practice.

Radical Learning from All of Nature

We have all been told in one way or another that this cannot work, right? To the sceptical, it should be enough to say that the current hegemonic individualistic leadership paradigm was constructed and embedded as part of a status quo by people, and anything that has been built can be transformed! It takes a lot of courage and humility, and the learnings from pre-capitalist communities, indigenous communities, transformative movements, decentralized groups, self-organized and self-governed communities, movements from many different contexts worldwide, and other beings in nature, are so vast and diverse, that all we need to do is open our hearts and challenge ourselves, learn and share learnings without dominating, extracting or co-opting.

It is possible and it has been done in various contexts, with different recipes, experiences, formulas, etc.  And we have so much to learn from other beings in nature. Migratory birds are an example, as we learn in the book Emergent Strategy from Adrianne Maree Brown that: “Starlings’ murmuration consists of a flock moving in synch with one another, engaging in clear, consistent communication and exhibiting collective leadership and deep, deep trust. Every individual bird focuses attention on their seven closest neighbours and thus manage a larger flock cohesiveness and synchronicity (at times upwards of over a million birds).” - Sierra Pickett.

“In nature everything works in collaboration. There are hummingbirds and flowers that are in such deep coordination they need each other for survival. How vibrant and alive and successful could our movement be if we moved with such coordination and collaboration?” - Karissa Lewis 

We learn from how other beings in nature organise themselves and thrive collectively, whereas beings that are guided by an individual leader and organised in competitive and individualistic power structures - including human beings – increasingly struggle to survive. The way we have organized the hegemonic society is leading to the destruction of the Earth – comprising the destruction of our connection with ourselves, with each other and with the whole nature.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact has made all this even clearer - we need community and belonging. It is now even more evident that a just and equal collective feminist future is an urgent reality that we must build together - in practice, right now, and step by step. We believe feminist democracies, centred in collective feminist leadership, power, and plural in its ways and existing practices, to be possible.

This article has been edited by, is based on and includes writings elaborated collectively with Lucy Richmond, Kim Kaborda, Ria Ryan, Giulia Meneghetti and Giulia Bruzzone; the analyses and learnings in this article are the result of the collective work of everyone at the Feminist Hiking Collective.

The Feminist Hiking Collective and Srilatha Batliwala have recently launched an initiative called From me to we. The initiative is a collective and iterative process that aims to collect and distribute a creative map interweaving and describing the practices of collective feminist leadership, through an open call for submissions renewed on a yearly basis. We would like to invite you all to learn more about this initiative and possibly send a submission or spread the word across movements, groups and communities – we have webpages currently in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish and submissions can be sent in all those languages.

We would like to acknowledge and express our profound gratitude to those groups, collectives, networks, organizations and movements whose work have collectively inspired and grounded our reflections and our practice: JASS, CREA, FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund, Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos (IM-Defensoras), Movimiento de Mujeres Indígenas por el Buen Vivir, AWID, FAMM Indonesia and many more.