Ruling the Future: New Leadership Rules

What does it mean that everywhere I turn, someone smarter than me has written or is talking about something I know in my bones?

On the one hand, my initial instinct is self-flagellation and abuse with inner feelings of my own unworthiness, or, as Brené Brown would say with her groundbreaking work on vulnerability, my own shame.

“Why didn’t I do that research sooner?”

“How can s/he possibly have beat me to the punch by stating what I have known for so long?”

“I must be an incompetent nincompoop…”

On the other hand, in my most recent case of “writing envy,” I feel that surge of gratitude that someone besides me understands and has compelling evidence in support of something I have long felt or known.

John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio have written The Athena Doctrine. They articulate, with copious amounts of data, the story of how feminine values matter and are in fact, on a global basis, rising.

Through surveying more that 60,000 people around the world, they uncover keys to future success in business and government that really matter:

  • Connectedness
  • Humility
  • Candor
  • Patience
  • Empathy
  • Trustworthiness
  • Openness
  • Flexibility
  • Vulnerability
  • Balance

They further describe these seemingly timeless virtues as largely “feminine” hence the resemblance and categorization to Greek Goddess Athena, venerated for her intelligence, skill, civilizing influence, and fairness. In contrast, the traditionally “masculine” characteristics that have long populated European and North American government and industry of aggression, decisiveness, independence, analysis, and pride are widely seen in their research as less critical to success and less connected to happiness.

Well, knock my socks off. They said it, they proved it, and they have a story to tell about it.  Thank you Mr. Gerzema and Mr. D’Antonio.

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what you say is true.

In fact, after coaching hundreds of leaders across a wide swath of industry, non-profit, and government sectors for more than 25 years, I have frequently been brought in to work with male leaders at the top of organizations to help them elevate their skills in precisely those areas listed as key to success. Many of the men I have had the good fortune to work with over the years have struggled mightily to re-wire the strengths they were trained to bring to the table from their education and upbringing to create room for, in particular, connectedness, humility, and empathy, to become more effective leaders.

The great irony of my own knowing in this area, however, is that simultaneous to my work with men in growing their “feminine” leadership qualities, I have had to actually subjugate, subvert, and minimize my own strengths in Athena’s qualities.

I have felt since I was a young woman wilderness guide just starting out in my career, that the best way to be heard and seen in the circles in which I navigated was to actually look and act more like men: decisive, direct, action-oriented, independent, and data-driven. The process of dumbing down my own naturally- grown feminine leadership qualities seemed a reasonable thing to do after countless exchanges with others in which my gifts were seen as too emotional, too open, too focused on collaborative wins, and too “soft.”  So, despite countless instances of negative interactions to my more masculine leadership efforts (as Sheryl Sandberg so aptly speaks to in her book Lean In, I was frequently called “bossy” or “the b-word,” I have learned how to act like a man to be heard and seen. A small price to pay, over the years, for earning a seat at the table with executive clients and colleagues whose respect mattered greatly to the success of my career and in fact, my business.

I knew there was a sea change afoot as I have recently received feedback from others that my coaching work lacked a “wholistic person focus” and that my proposal for a TED talk was “too focused on business success.” The very behaviors I have been told for my entire adult life (don’t be too soft or touchy-feely, pay attention to the bottom line) are now actually counter-productive to what the world around me needs.

Even so, I am still doing a happy dance at the social and cultural transformation our complex world of commerce and politics is undergoing in relation to the feminine doctrine of what real leadership means. I feel I have always known that these attributes had a bona fide, deliberate place in partnership and in business. I am tired, after so many years of suppressing my natural leadership gifts, to have become more like the men with whom I needed to interact. I long to bring forward my feminine leadership gifts as valid, seen, and valued tools for business and government globally.

Simultaneously, I can’t help but feel a bit bait-and-switched.  And of course, highly anxious.  Will I be able to let go of my masculine adopted ways of navigating in my world?  Do I trust myself and my own resilience to show up in the precious ways I know that I must, and other leaders must, to make a real difference for tomorrow? With an open heart? A spirit of deep empathy and collaborative optimism? With vulnerability and patience?

It is time to practice what I preach and model what I know: that sharing, compassion, and connection will rule the day and are what the world sorely needs. The data these authors offer validates that which I have always known, and perhaps at last I and other women can bring feminine leadership approaches forward as a real, valid asset. I can stop acting first like a man just to be heard. I only need to rediscover that which I have always known.

Jim Morris