Feminist leadership requires an active experience of meaningful engagement - a deliberate effort to create the deeper human connections of trust, inspiration, empathy and solidarity. In an age of extreme uncertainty, these connections cannot be an after-thought. As new and complex challenges in the external world make centralised approaches to leadership and decision making redundant, we must do more to enable individual and institutional experiences of purpose to work asmutually reinforcing parts of a wider eco-system of solidarity and collective action.
Why is authentic leadership important?
I have had the privilege of spending nearly three decades of my life studying about and working with civil society. Over half this time was spent working with large-scale networks and coalitions and a key theme of my engagement was the need to steer away from traditional approaches to decision-making. This made it necessary to actively navigate wider and more creative possibilities for collaborative leadership.
Shared leadership however requires an active experience of meaningful engagement - a deliberate effort to create the deeper human connections of trust, inspiration, empathy and solidarity. In seeking this, I have often been struck at how the passion and determination that we celebrate in activism is often overlooked in organisational spaces. The unstoppable force of purpose and spirit that we so admire in individual pioneers of change is often diminished by design when we take our places in the cadres of agencies and networks.
In past years, there have been several moments where I have ‘woken up’ to the disturbing realisation that I had lost connection with my own self while striving to fit into a wider organisational framework or identity. Finding (and holding on to) my sense of self once again required a deliberate and repeated effort to examine and align my core values and aspirations with the goals that that the group(s) I associate with and serve.
In an age of extreme uncertainty, forging this connection between individual and organisational aspirations cannot be an after-thought. As new and complex challenges in the external world make centralised approaches to leadership and decision making redundant, we must do more to enable individual and institutional experiences of purpose to work as mutually reinforcing parts of a wider eco-system of solidarity and collective action. The present era of ‘leader-ful’ movements provides evidence that the experience of agency and leadership now thrives well beyond ascribed roles and traditional structures. Feminist leadership, with its emphasis on purpose, authenticity and collective engagement, is integral to societies and workplaces of the future.
As outlined in the following sections of this write-up, it is our experience of authenticity that helps us make critical connections with wider actors and allies of change. It allows us to understand leadership as a universal expression of agency and intent and lets us remain hopeful, relevant and resilient in an ever-changing world.
What is authentic leadership?
A central piece, in my view, of the experience of authentic leadership is the review and alignment of the affirming outcomes of Identity, Intent and Awareness. A dynamic engagement with these outcomes allows us to make proactive choices about how we invest in the building blocks of our agency and leadership - our time, focus and energies. This engagement is a life-long process of learning and evolving but by progressively investing in the development of our core strengths we enable bigger and more complex shifts towards the goal of authentic leadership over time.
Questions of identity are important to our quest for authentic leadership for a number of reasons. These include our ability to experience alignment across our personal & public spheres, benefitting from a sense of being ‘whole’ and integrated across our key roles and reducing the risk of fragmentation between different aspects of our lives.
Some cues that I have found helpful in exploring this aspect of authentic leadership are listed below. This interrogation will no doubt work differently for different people, based on our unique experiences and contexts.
None of these are simple questions, but spelling out our values and assumptions of self and examining how they connect with the purpose and priorities of the groups we associate with has certainly been useful in appreciating those areas of my life that are well aligned and navigating those areas that cause distress. Applying these insights on a regular basis have helped me become aware of underlying tensions that I may not have otherwise been aware of in a number of spaces, including and beyond the workplace. This awareness has in turn emboldened actions to address barriers to the full and meaningful experience of my identity.
Identifying and channeling a distinct line of intent is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding aspects of experiencing authentic leadership. Its regular practice has helped me experience a deep sense of value, fulfilment and achievement – experiences that are especially significant as we live and work in contexts of uncertainty and impermanence.
Questions that can help us probe our relationship with intent further include:
The joy of acting with intent is that it allows us to recognise the potential for leadership in ourselves and others. In addition to bringing the notion of choice and agency to life in every aspect of our lives, I believe that it allows us to truly recognise the universal potential for leadership in ourselves and in others.
Most importantly, it helps us move beyond the distorted impulse of ‘glorifying or crucifying’ leaders and acts of leadership. As we know, such harmful judgements are often directed towards individuals representing identities and abilities that are under-represented in traditional forms of leadership.
A third and equally important aspect of this journey is being open to learning, adapting and transforming. While this sounds exciting in theory, in practice it involves the difficult and painful experience of actively challenging and growing one’s limits for vulnerability and humility. Of the three tasks listed in this note, this one certainly stands out as the area where I have needed to put in the most effort.
Throwing in healthy doses of unguarded curiosity or fearless compassion into the mix of our daily lives isn’t something we are trained to do. Our activism often involves the expression of righteous anger and the ability to act on a genuine conviction in the alternatives we advocate. Responding to situations of mistrust and conflict in ways that involve care and respect towards myself and others often requires more emotional energy than any other situation I’m faced with.
In such times, I have found it useful to remind myself that as champions of civic freedoms, we consistently call on government and business leaders to do better when they engage with dissent in their contexts. In the course of the pandemic, we have had many reasons to celebrate feminist leaders who have demonstrated the ability to nurture dialogue across diverse sections of society, thereby enabling more nuanced and creative responses to the unprecedented and complex problems of our time. An abundance of intentional awareness is critical to such leadership.
Questions that can help us interrogate our propensity for compassionate creativity include:
A powerful cue for authenticity is a review of the choices we have made when faced with a situation where acting in support of our ideals exposes us to consequences that we dislike or fear. The strength of our ideals and integrity – as individuals and groups – is most apparent than when we face issues or actions that align with our purpose but involve consequences that we intensely want to avoid.
When faced with such a dilemma, it helps to recall that we have more people standing up for justice than ever before. In a networked age, our ability to draw courage and inspiration from each other can be far stronger than our instinct for disengagement. Standing up for ourselves and our causes must be a part of our daily practice – a muscle that we exercise and expand on a regular basis. The small actions that we take to show up for ourselves and our values create the space for the bigger transformations we collectively aspire to.
Lysa John is Secretary-General of CIVICUS. This piece is based on her intervention in the 8-part Feminist Leadership series hosted by the Fair Share of Women Leadership network. She lives in South Africa and can be reached via Twitter on: @lysajohn.