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The New Leadership Story

By Elizabeth Lesser

The following is a transcript of a speech given by Elizabeth Lesser at the Women & Power: Our Time to Lead Conference held at Omega Institute, September 24-26, 2010.

It's hard to believe that a year has passed since our last Women and Power conference. How great to see so many familiar faces and to greet so many newcomers. Welcome to everyone. Have you noticed that books and articles and gatherings on this subject of women and power and leadership are proliferating all over the world? I've spent my whole professional life scouting out emerging trends for my work here at Omega—trends in health, creativity, religion, science, and culture. Sometimes we have to look for subtle hints about what's up-and-coming. But there's nothing subtle about the trend of women and leadership these days. It is everywhere—in business, the arts, academia, media, and of course, politics. I've been especially aware of the trend because I received a plethora of invitations to speak at women's conferences all over the country in 2010 all focusing on the same subject—women and power and leadership.

I don't know if you are like me, but I am sick of the vitriol and the almost tribal nature of our political discourse these days. It's a short leap from where we are now to the kind of brutal behavior we see happening all over the world—where groups of people separated often only by ideas devolve into violent conflict. I would love to start a dialogue with other women, especially the emerging women leaders who may share different values and perspectives than I, and explore with them these questions: why do you think women all over the world are being called to lead at this time in history? And even more important, what will we do with our power? What will we use it for? Will we help chart a different course for humanity, or will we merely rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic? Gloria Steinem once said something on this stage: "God may be in the details," she said, "but the goddess is in the questions. Once we begin to ask them, there's no turning back." I am interested in exploring these "no-turning-back" questions with diverse women—perhaps we could come up with some answers we'd never have found without each other. Call this a pie-in-the-sky dream, but our times demand exactly this kind of dreaming.

Here are some questions I spent the summer asking and researching in preparation for the conferences this FALL:

• What is leadership?

• How has it looked in different eras and cultures?

• Who wrote the rules of the game?

• What are the time-honored qualities associated with leaders?

• Is there a specifically female style of leadership emerging?

• And what kinds of leaders are needed today?

When we start asking these questions, we find ourselves swimming in a huge body of information with all sorts of tributaries leading into it. What is so great about this conference is that we're going to have the opportunity to explore these waters with some of the world's most inspired and daring swimmers. Tonight I'm going to set the stage for our speakers, and focus on what I call "the story of leadership." History is indeed a story. And when it comes to leadership, it is His Story.

Men have been the leaders in most areas of historically valued endeavors, and even more far-reaching, men have told the tales that define the ideals of rulership and power. Under the guidance of male leadership, our species has made inventive and wondrous advancements. But we also have taken colossal missteps and indulged in excesses that I believe have put us on an unsustainable trajectory. So it's a good time to deconstruct the story of leadership—to explore its underpinnings; to question aspects that we have come to accept as "just the way it is"; and to imagine together, ways of steering the ship around the iceberg.

There are a couple of things I want to get out of the way first. I am not advocating for what an article in the Atlantic Magazine this summer called "The End of Men." Nor do I agree with what TED TURNER said at a UN gathering a few years back: "Men should be barred from public office for 100 years on every part of the globe," he said. "It would be a much kinder, gentler, more intelligently run world. Us men have had millions of years where we've been running things. We've screwed it up hopelessly. Let's give it to the women." With all deference to the undeniably brilliant Mr. Turner, that's old-story thinking. I'm hoping the new story will be about women AND men creating something wiser and kinder than either gender could do alone.

Next, let me define briefly what I mean by leadership. A leader is any individual—each one of us for example—who at different times in life and work, chooses to chart or change the course for a family, or a community, a business, a town, a school board, a religious organization, or a value system. Whether it takes the form of leading in a relationship, or guiding a nation, leadership is deciding what matters, what to prioritize, how to engage others, how to deal with conflict, how to create and divide wealth, how to share power. …To lead inevitably involves taking a stand—sometimes an unpopular one; it asks us at times to say "yes" to ideas and plans we may feel barely ready to advance, and sometimes to say "no" to people with different ideas and plans. In other words, leadership—while exciting and fulfilling—can also make us feel uncomfortable, un-liked, exposed, even endangered.

Everything I am going to speak about tonight, is about YOU, and not only about those at the upper echelons of corporate or political office. You may be taking the lead in a short-term project at work, or you may be planning on finally speaking the truth at a family gathering; or you may be running for office. Regardless of its scope, I want you to hear your name whenever you hear the word leader spoken this evening.

Back to the leadership story. Looking for the threads of its DNA, here are some books I worked my way through this summer: The Art of War, by Sun Tzu; Aristotle's The Politics; The Prince, by Machiavelli; Selected Essays by Karl Marx; and The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. (How about a collective groan for my efforts? Fortunately, I went and saw "Eat, Pray, Love" in the middle of it all, so that balanced things out.) I also read bits and pieces of biographies of Churchill, FDR, Reagan, and Henry Ford, and excerpts from the newer texts by 20th century leadership gurus. At one point in the summer, I found myself in my basement, where one of my son's college books are molding. He went to a fantastic school—St John's College, called the great books school because over the course of 4 years every student reads the same hundred books—the cannon of Western thought—lovingly referred to by the students as the dead white man's curriculum. So, as some people were lounging around reading beach novels, I was in a moldy basement leafing through books by dead white men. I scanned some of the Greek philosophers, the Bible, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the fathers of American democracy. I want to read to you a few quotes from the two books that as far as I can tell, have most informed the leadership story to date.

Of course, many people—women and men—are innovating beyond the worldview expressed in these books, but all of us and our institutions are still under the sway and expressing the psyche of these foundational thinkers. The first is The Art of War written in the 6th century BC. Its been quoted by leaders throughout history; in the latter part of the 20th century, the corporate community dusted it off once again and incorporated it into its business manuals. In the book the words "war" & "leadership" are interchangeable, because according to its author, Sun Tzu, to maintain order a leader must expect to wage war. The two most occurring key words from that book are Fear and Deception. Those were the qualities Sun Tzu urged a leader to develop. He wrote: "If they fear you, they will respect you. If they love you, they might respect you. But if they don't fear you, they'll never love you or respect you!" And this one: "Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance. All warfare is based on deception." Another foundational leadership thinker was Niccolo Machiavelli. His book, The Prince, written in 1513, is an essential contribution to modern political, military, and financial thought. He broke from the Greek tradition and introduced the idea that morality has no place in the leadership arena. He writes: "It must be understood that a leader cannot observe all of those virtues for which men are reputed good, because it is often necessary to act against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, in order to preserve the state." He keeps alive Sun Tzu's philosophy with this directive: "Men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; fear is sustained by dread of punishment which will never abandon you." Perhaps the most famous axiom from The Prince is: "the end justifies the means." I have a file full of salient quotes like these from the books I read this summer. While there are shades of variation, most use the language of fear, domination, and control to describe the path of leadership. And another thing you find in most of these texts—from all eras and cultures—are strong directives to keep women away from the leadership arena. They all seemed to know that if women were allowed into the halls of power, they might ask some unsettling questions and lobby for some alternative methodologies. The story line might have to change.

As I made my way through my un-beach-like summer reading list, I found myself wondering what if women had contributed to the rules and the theories and the stories about what it meant to lead? And I remembered a conversation I had with a woman whose life's work was about that very question.

The conversation happened years ago—It was 1987. I was eating lunch in Omega's faculty dining room—a room where I have clocked hours and hours over our 33 years of offering workshops and conferences. I have shared meals with hundreds of our teachers and speakers in that room—such an eclectic mix, from African drummers to Nobel Peace Prize winners to religious leaders to NBA basketball players. At this particular meal I was juggling the almost impossible task that many of you may be enduring right now, or did, or will, and that is the task of being a working parent. In my case, work was being a leader of a ten-year-old organization while also being a single mom and a pretty confused young woman struggling with issues of power and self-worth and voice. So, on this day there I was in a room full of fascinating people having fascinating conversations, while I was engaged in a debate with my little boys about finishing their brown rice and tofu before being allowed to ride their bikes down to the country store where I knew they would buy hamburgers and ice cream cones. Finally the boys won the debate and ran gleefully out into the summer day. By that time most of the faculty had also left. But in the corner of the room, bent over a book and slurping what looked like split pea soup, was an older woman with a mop of gray hair and thick reading glasses—an author who was teaching a writing workshop. I didn't know that much about this woman. All I cared was that she was getting soup on the front of a sweater she was wearing, so lost was she in her book. I was concerned about the sweater, because, you see, it was mine. I had lent it to her the evening before, when she was looking cold at a meeting. So, there I was, in my usual stupor from the daily onslaught of parenting and work, watching in horror as this woman dribbled soup on my cashmere sweater. Suddenly, she looked up and motioned for me to join her. Within minutes I forgot all about the sweater, because we began a conversation that was one of those doors you walk through—one you remember years later because it gave words to something that had been sprouting in the dark, waiting for water and light.

The faculty person was the author Marion Zimmer Bradley. A prolific novelist, she had recently published The Mists of Avalon, which is a retelling of the Arthurian legends from the point of view of the women in the tales. I had not yet read the book. It was one of many stacked up on my bed table. I had invited Ms Bradley to teach at Omega because of an article she wrote called "Advice to New Writers." I loved it. It was brief & tough & prescriptive. I had been using it to help me get started writing in all my spare time, which meant from about 10 to midnight.

I asked Ms. Bradley how her class was going and she said quite lovely. And then she asked me how my life was going. She was one of those people who evoked intimacy right away, and I found myself telling this strange stranger, all about my struggles as the sole woman in power at my organization. About a situation I found myself in over and over: I could see some important changes we needed to make that would keep us successful AND aligned with our mission. I could see what would happen if we didn't make those changes. But no one listened. I kept doing back flips in meetings, trying to come up with more compelling ways of telling the guys in the room what I saw. It's not that I wanted to prevail. I just wanted my ideas about financial priorities, staffing, and long-term consequences to be taken as seriously as their ideas. Yet most of my concerns died behind the closed doors of meetings. Occasionally they would resurface as someone else's brilliant idea. I was thinking of just throwing in the towel; I didn't like who I was becoming, I told Ms. Bradley. I felt like all I did was complain or manipulate or morph myself into someone I wasn't just in order to do my work. I rambled on, checking to see if she was really interested, and to my surprise, she was. I now realize, because I've been working on a novel myself, that novelists are always mining for material. This makes them superb listeners. So be careful what you say to a writer. When I was done speaking, Marion Zimmer Bradley said she was working on a new book called The Firebrand — her take on the Iliad of Homer. She was telling the story from the point of view of Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo.

However, when she refused to become his consort, he placed a curse on her whereby she would retain the power of foresight, but no one would believe her predictions. Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy but she was unable to prevent the multiple tragedies that befell the city. No one believed what she saw or what she said. As Ms. Bradley spun me the tale of The Firebrand, I began to feel less and less as if she was speaking about characters from ancient Greece, and more and more as if she was speaking to me. Finally she said, "Listen here, young lady. Women have been ignored, ridiculed, punished, even killed for their opinions forever. But without the balancing power of her authentic voice—the voice of the feminine—things end in disaster. Cassandra's tale is your tale, it is all of our tales, and we can change the way the story ends." "But how?" I asked Ms. Bradley. "I keep trying but they don't want to listen." "Your tone of voice right now? That's the first step. Stop whining. Are you going to be the doomed prophetess, or are you going to save your city?" "Well that sounds a little overblown!" I said. "I run a workshop center; these are not life or death issues." "Yes they are. You and every other woman who cares, who sees and believes in a different way—You are Cassandra. It doesn't matter where you work, what you do, where you live…Women know something that the world needs now. So get to work. Write it, speak it, do it." That fortuitous meeting that began with dribbled pea soup and a ruined cashmere sweater challenged me to take the baton from Cassandra, to find my own leadership voice, and to speak from it with courage. Understanding that I was not alone, in fact I was part of an ongoing story, helped me navigate my way through all of the mistakes I've made, the crazy rants I've delivered, the lessons I have learned, and the long hours I have put in trying to become the leader I had been waiting for.

I don't want to give you the impression that if women had been the primary leaders throughout history we'd be living in an enlightened society today…. Who knows what unique limitations a woman-dominated society would have created. But here is what I do know: Our world is seriously out of balance.

The domination and war strategies we have employed and the Machiavellian roads we have traveled have brought us to the end of their usefulness. We are flailing around in some dangerous waters: the clashing of cultures, nuclear armament, environmental degradation, population strain, hunger, poverty, to name a few of our problems.. We need new voices, new perspectives.

A very smart guy once said: "No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it." Meaning, the only way out of seemingly unsolvable problems is to leap into new ways of thinking and being. This guy also said: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." As you may already know, that smart guy was Albert Einstein—someone who solved a few tricky problems, so when he says no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it, I perk up. Consciousness—an interesting word. He could have said we needed new opinions, or skills, or strategies to solve our problems. But he said, consciousness. And by that he meant something more mysterious, something loftier. Consciousness implies wakefulness—being wide-awake to the full picture of life spread before us. I have a poster of Einstein in my office. It's a picture of him, with his white hair in its famous disarray, and another one of his quotes: "I want to know God's thoughts—the rest are details." That's another way of describing consciousness. While we will probably never grasp the entirety of God's thoughts, or the wisdom of the universe, or whatever you call the vast organizing principle of existence, we can listen more deeply for inklings.

We can pay closer attention to the cause and effects of our actions. We can raise our standards of behavior toward something kinder and grander. What might leadership look like if generated from a wiser consciousness? Here's my stab at some answers.

A new consciousness leader knows the difference between strength and force. Strength comes from a deep inner confidence; from loving and respecting and expressing one's own authentic self. That kind of strength opens the gate to real love of others and life itself. Force comes from a deep inner wound that spawns the urge to dominate and to even the score.

A new consciousness leader uses her strength—she is bold, direct, and decisive, but views terror and violence as the tactics of cowards and fools. A new consciousness leader also knows the difference between outrage and rage. I think of outrage as holy anger—strong emotional responsiveness to the pain of others, to injustice, to ignorance. Outrage is fierce but it never dehumanizes. It fills a leader's sails with the winds of action but it also fills her heart with compassion and discernment. Rage on the other hand is like a forest fire. It burns everything in its path. It is impatient and vindictive and shortsighted. A new consciousness leader uses the energy of outrage to persuade and guide and include and create.

When I say we need new consciousness leaders, that's different from saying we need women to lead. Both women and men are capable of leaping beyond history into a new story. But I do believe women are uniquely in touch with the kind of consciousness most needed in the 21st century. There is plentiful research that demonstrates this—from social scientists, corporate studies, and government statistics. Before I share some of these findings with you, remember that research evidence is based on statistical averages. For example, research shows that men are taller than women. But there will always be some women who are taller than some men. So, just as women leaders have been shown to be—for example—more empathic, there are certainly some men who are better empathizers than some women. But indeed, there have been enough studies done that reveal common denominators in women's leadership. It is generally accepted now that a potent brew of time and biology and enforced social roles has carved differences in the brains and emotional make-up of males and females. Regardless of the specific study—from the most recent Millennium Development Goals Report to a survey about women in the U.S. military, to The Shriver Report and The White House Project's Benchmarking Women's Leadership—the research points to implications we should not ignore. For example, when girls and women are educated and empowered, the lives of the rest of the population across all sectors of a society also improve.

This has been called "the girl effect," and it is being witnessed all over the world. When women assume leadership at home, at work, in government, the priorities begin to include critical issues that were once marginalized as "women's problems." In countries where you have more than 30 percent of women in parliament or congress…childcare, security, domestic violence, health care, and education all move to the front of the agenda. Then there are the studies that focus on women's leadership style. Most of these point to undeniable talents that women express more regularly than men. On average, women leaders more readily "tend and befriend" as opposed to "command and control." Women seem to be more tolerant of differences; seek solutions to problems through communication as opposed to domination; are better team players; and are more willing to take risks that up-end the status-quo. Are these signs of the kind of consciousness we need now? I think they are. But let's be careful. Women may have within them inclinations toward these qualities, but that is no guarantee we will use them when the issues get complex and when crises loom. Real and abiding consciousness change doesn't just happen. We have to work for it—in the world and within our own hearts and minds. I have walked several paths in my life. I have been a mother, a midwife, an educator, a businesswoman, an author, an activist….but the most influential and important path I have taken is that of spiritual seeker. I am just as interested and impressed by the inner work each one of us does as I am by the work we do in the world. By inner work, by spiritual work, I mean, living the examined life; watering the seeds of inner wisdom; and confronting our shadowy parts—because within each of us is our very own mini-Machiavelli. It takes work—spiritual practice that quiets the reactivity of the mind and expands the heart in wider and wider circles of inclusion; and it takes psychological inquiry to heal family wounds and to uncoil our un-conscious ego urges to dominate and punish. Without this kind of inner work, our primal, tribal reactivity waits in the wings and takes over when the going gets tough.

Now the point isn't to become a perfect, egoless saint, but rather just to try—to try to change our-self as we work on changing the world. Because how we do what we do is as important an indicator of new consciousness leadership as what we do.

Here's a place where I am personally challenged in walking the walk of new consciousness leadership. I have the feeling that many of us in this room are dealing with this same issue. What do we do with our strong feelings—often our rage—about some of the women who are running for office this year in America? This is a potent situation to test out the depth of our commitment to changing the way power and leadership are exercised. I don't like the way women from all sides are slamming those who have different opinions about the complex issues of our times. When I feel arising within me knee-jerk negativity and when I hear myself dismissing out of hand women from different political parties or worldviews without really listening to them, without trying to understand their point of view, I know I am trapped in old-consciousness behavior—the kind that slanders and dehumanizes, and leads ultimately to the very kinds of action I say I want to change. We have a chance to do this better. So much of the energy we expend in fearing and belittling people is a huge waste of time that would be better spent reaching across to each other, finding shared language, defusing hyperbole before it degenerates into intractability or violence. To be a woman does not mean to hold the same opinions about politics or religions or family. But can we make being a woman be about finding more peaceable, workable ways of sharing power on our precious, small planet? If we don't, then conferences like these and books and surveys about women's leadership will amount to very little. The women's movements of the 20th century opened the doors to all women. Some of the women who walk through these doors will end up marching to the old rules and strategies of power. But that should not stop us from working to advance the cause of women in leadership.

Let's make sure we dedicate our work to an emotionally intelligent style of leadership; to the eradication of violence and greed in the name of progress; to the creation of policies that help women and men balance the needs of family, children, and work; to the careful stewardship of the Earth and the wise distribution of its wealth—when these become the raisons d'être of our power, then I have high hopes that the new story will be born. I often come back to what I learned as a midwife—my first profession. When I delivered babies I would teach my laboring moms and dads that the uterus had extraordinary intelligence, and if the laboring mother could work with her uterus, then the baby would be born with more ease and in a shorter amount of time. I explained to her that the tight muscle called the cervix had to stretch from this o to this O. When something needs to stretch that much, it causes a lot of pain. If we fight that pain, if we react in fear, if we lose faith, we cause more friction and we slow everything down. We hinder the new life from being born. It's not easy to relax into pain and to trust change and chaos. It's natural to become frightened, to doubt oneself, to lash out, to give up. But women have risen to the occasion billions of times. We have created, nurtured, and sustained life against all odds and all sorts of struggles.

If we can deliver new life, we can deliver a new story of leadership.


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The above is a transcript of the keynote speech delivered by Elizabeth Lesser at the Women & Power: Our Time to Lead Conference held at Omega Institute, September 24-26, 2010.

To order audio CDs from this event or to purchase recordings from past Women & Power conferences, please order online at www.eomega.org/omega/mediaworks, call 845.266.4444, ext. 317 or email [email protected]

Feminist.com's Archive of Features from the
Women & Power: Our Time to Lead Conference

Related links:

  • Elizabeth Lesser's keynote speech from the Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference: Putting the Words Women and Power Together
  • Elizabeth Lesser's keynote speech from the Women & Courage conference: The Birth of a New Human Story
  • Conversation with Elizabeth Lesser: Interview by Marianne Schnall
  • The Spiritual Adventure: An Ongoing Series by Elizabeth Lesser
  • Gender and Self: Gods and Goddesses Within (Excerpt from The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure)
  • Open Secret (Excerpt from Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow)
  • Feminist.com's Archive of Features from the Women, Power & Peace Conference
  • Speeches from the 2004 Women & Power Conference

    Elizabeth LesserElizabeth Lesser is cofounder and senior advisor of Omega Institute. She is author of The Seeker's Guide and Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. For 30 years, she has studied and worked with leading figures in the fields of emotional intelligence and healing—healing self and healing society. For much of that time, Lesser was a driving force at Omega, helping to lead the organization, create the curriculum, and spearhead many of its programs, including the Women and Power conferences. Today, she is an active board member and advisor to the organization.

    Lesser is a New York Times best-selling author, speaker, and host on Oprah Radio on Sirius XM. Her recent work includes helping Oprah Winfrey to produce the 10-week "webinar" for Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth. Lesser attended Barnard College and San Francisco State University and is formerly a midwife and birth educator. She has taught workshops on emotional intelligence, meditation, women’s issues, and death and dying, and has appeared on national radio and television, and lectured at college campuses, retreat centers, and conferences nationwide.

    Elizabeth Lesser is on the Advisory Board of Feminist.com.


    Omega Institute is the nation's largest holistic education provider, highly regarded for its pioneering work in holistic health, meditation, yoga, transformational psychology, bodywork, spirituality, world music, and art. Founded in 1977, Omega fulfills its mission to provide learning environments that awaken the best in the human spirit through its broad-based curriculum and unique community spirit. www.eomega.org

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