Taking Our Seat at the Leadership Table
“What enabled me to speak up and to take my seat were the women I turned to for guidance. These weren’t long conversations. No, they were just enough to help me find my courage and recognize my right to speak up—powerfully but with great diplomacy.”
When I was asked to write about what led to my interest and work on organizational and leadership effectiveness, I wondered what story it would be. Would it go back as far as my childhood explorations, like the many times my mother would find me as a toddler very early in the morning, wandering in the dewy grass?
Would it be about high school, when studying world religions I began to see patterns of sameness even among differences? Would it be that I was born a southern female in a Western culture?
And of course, it is all of these things. Significant events and sustained effort change the lens—one pattern is revealed and it’s true. The light changes and another pattern predominates.
But I guess what ultimately led to my field came from the desire to be powerful within my own right, to excel and to create cultures where others could excel. It also came from a desire to relieve suffering—the kind that occurs at the hands of terrible leaders and from the awareness that at one point in my life others suffered from my own bad leadership. One gets a nice dose of humility from awareness like that!
It took a while for me to really be able to learn a different way of leading. I was told point-blank by a trusted male colleague that it was okay to be endearing and that I could lead as a woman, not as a woman emulating a man. I learned that while women hold up half the sky, men hold up the other half.
I learned to sincerely value what one might consider ‘male attributes’ in the business world and to see how those traits could be forces for great good nationally and internationally. I learned to look at systems and the invisible rules that shape them, whether within families, organizations, or global markets. And the more I learn about these things—to respect them even when I may not love how they manifest or are expressed–the more I come to peace with life on its terms and the more freedom I have to take powerful action. I can work “with” rather than pushing “against.”
Only recently, there was a family situation that needed to be re-balanced with women’s voices. My mother had not spoken up because she did not want to create conflict. My older sister had not spoken up because she did not think she had the right. I had not spoken up because I did not want to create conflict and did not think I had the right. What an inheritance I received—the inherited tendency to avoid conflict or think I had no right to speak up! But I was determined to address an injustice. We’re good at that, you know, we women. Addressing injustices on behalf of others. It requires even more courage to do it on our own behalf.
Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, said the most important thing women can do is “take a seat at the table.” I agree. What enabled me to speak up and to take my seat were the women I turned to for guidance. These weren’t long conversations. No, they were just enough to help me find my courage and recognize my right to speak up—powerfully but with great diplomacy. I was a woman speaking up on behalf of generations of women who had preceded her. I was a woman speaking up on my own behalf.
Yet even with the business and life successes, the years of personal and professional development, I can still be completely surprised at how being born female requires me to fight for permission to “take my seat at the table” literally and figuratively…to fight for permission to succeed. This is why having mentors is so vital! Another woman has already fought your fight. She’s taken ownership of her right to speak up and to take action, and she is willing to help you find your own right. And always, when two or more women are together, they can bear witness to each other, strengthen each other, and dare take that “seat at the table” in ways that can be gruelingly difficult done alone.
Sometimes I’m up to the courageous task of being a woman leader leading her business and her life and all that it requires. Sometimes, I have to engage in sustained effort over time. When I do step up, I come to peace with myself in the world. I can lead with increasing integrity and power and help other leaders and their organizations do the same.
For more information, including Beth Hand’s Guidelines for Leadership, check out our resources.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.