Women and Leadership



Strozzi -44What is leadership?
What does leadership mean to you? Is it others holding you as a leader? As a mentor, as someone they want to emulate? Is it a position or role in leadership? Is it being able to make things happen that matter to you, and are aligned with what you care about? Is it leading alone or together with others?

We inherit images and meanings for leadership. We inherit these from our family and community, from our roles and culture within our companies, and from the broader society, and media images. We also earn understandings of leadership from our experiences. Often we don’t have the time to deeply reflect upon, or design “leadership” based on our own values, our view of the world, or our wisdom gained from life experiences.

What if?
What if leadership requires a deep inquiry into what you care about? What if it required you to align your actions and conversations? What if your instincts and your gifts supported that? What if this could be in any domain of your life? Your partnership, your work, your company, your parenting, or how you work with others to accomplish big things? What if you could be assured that your leadership would make a difference for others and for yourself?

Kinda exciting, I think.

What does being a woman have to do with leadership?
Here at Strozzi Institute we hold that we are all potential leaders- leaders of our lives, of large companies, of social change, as entrepreneurs, within our families and communities.

At essence, gender has nothing to do with leadership.

Yet, because gender plays a large role in how society builds meaning and distributes roles, constructs identity and interprets power and influence…gender has a lot to do with leadership.

For a moment play this game with me. Notice who comes to mind, automatically when you read:
Domestic worker
Legal Assistant
Professional Athlete
Military officer

If we look at the themes that arose in that game, we’ll often see the gender and race/culture images we received from our history books, TV and movies, or perhaps within our families or community. Most often the leadership roles cast for women, don’t come with a lot of influence, power or decision-making. Often women are not the largest beneficiaries of even their own work. When women do assume power, it is often hard won. Do we imagine it is easy for a woman to become the CEO of a large company? Have many of the women who accomplish this, tell that story?

We can also look to the numbers for what is happening with women in leadership. Women are 51% of the population, yet vastly under-represented in political leadership – as of 2013, 20 of the 100 US Senators are women, and there were none until 1992. If we look to other major resource and decision-making roles within economic leadership and corporate leadership, the picture looks the same. US women’s wages for equal work have increased since the 1970s- and are now 76.5 cents to every dollar that a man earns (2012), up from 62.1cents in 1979. Over a 10-year period, assuming a man’s salary of 100k annually, that is a $240,000 difference. If this change continues at the same rate it will take another 30 years, to equalize women’s pay for equal work. Lastly, if you make over $35,000 per year, you are in the top 10% of women income earners globally.

What does that let us know about women and their value?

Clearly there are built in social and economic blocks and challenges to women leading, defining leadership and making the decisions that influence the largest number of people, the greatest number of resources, and our collective future.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us with an immense leadership potential to tap, grow and acknowledge.

Perhaps the most important questions about leadership are:

  • What qualities of leadership are we wanting? Are we needing?
  • Where are we being led, with our current model?
  • Where do we want to lead?


Power and Connection
I remember when I first learned, and then truly experienced, that I could be powerful and connected at the same time. I thought that to be powerful, to want to make a big difference in life, meant that I would have to separate myself from others – to take the self-reliant leader’s path. Or, to stay connected, I would need to shrink myself. It was a deep relief to know that the opposite is much truer—that power, strength, and using my self to my fullest, is best and most possible when I am connected with others.

This is one of the most substantial themes we can explore in women’s leadership – power and connection. How to be powerful, perhaps even more powerful than you have felt permission to be, and be celebrated and connected with others? How about when those others are also powerful and focused women, and male allies? How do you find and reveal what you most care about within your leadership and discover that in others? What’s it like to both be accepted and challenged?

While some of us have found a place to experience and cultivate power and connection, many of us have not, because it is not the given frame for leadership. We often need to seek out others who are experimenting with these questions of leadership, positive impact, interdependence and “we” as a more powerful and satisfying framework. For me, much of this has happened in being exposed to other women exploring these questions like theorists and writers Audre Lorde, Mary Beth Krouse, Patricia Hill Collins, Chandra Mohanty and others. And, much of my pragmatic experience of growing into the lived experience of power and connection happened in Somatics. The way I used to talk about Somatics is as “training in being a true human being.” In my earlier adulthood, Somatics was the only place I was asked to be bigger, not smaller, as a woman leader. I had been asked to take on more responsibility plenty of times — but not inherently invited to be more myself, more powerful and in action in what I loved.

There are many ways to cultivate leadership that engages both your power and connection, along with vision and action. That grants permission and encouragement as well as requires rigor. And most often, we need to seek out those dojos—those places of practice, awakening and community.

One of the most powerful things we can do as human beings is lift each other up.

Embodied Leadership Competencies
At Strozzi Institute, we have been working in the field of embodied leadership for over 45 years. We have run a program especially for women for the last 12 years. Each year researching, growing and designing the course to best serve the particular road to leadership for women.

We have worked with a wide variety of leaders, from CEOs leading thousands, to social leaders organizing for rights and human dignity for their communities, from people transforming their families, to individuals finding what truly matters to them. Through this, we have found embodied competencies that are foundational to exemplary leadership. These include:

  • knowing what you most care about, and doing the inner work to answer this question well
  • knowing the difference you want to make, and for whom
  • cultivating the practices you need to align yourself and your actions with what’s most important to you
  • the ability to see both the small and big picture (people and systems)
  • empathy and social intelligence… a felt sense of interdependence
  • an ability to read the trends in the world—not to make the next sale, but to consider the future of life.

This brings us back to, what is leadership? What leadership do we need for our times? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we become those leaders?

Staci K. Haines

I have included this link to “Throw like a Girl”, a short YouTube piece. This is a beautiful piece and reveals how we embody what is in the broader social fabric, even when we don’t believe in it. Enjoy.