The feminine and feminist leadership challenge: Embracing the “both/and” rather than “either/or” #leaningin

A number of years ago I made a professional decision that I wouldn’t shy away from the “difficult conversation”. At the time I was working for a school system and I had witnessed too many serious problems that need not have escalated if, when the leader was faced the brutal facts, he/she was prepared to take action:

  • Have the conversation,
  • Address the issue and
  • If necessary ask the person to change/improve/leave.

Yet facing up to this seemed to be avoided, and the impending disaster wasn’t.

These conversations are never easy – for either side. I was involved in a mediation where a new principal at a school was addressing an unfair dismissal claim by a long-standing employee. Suffice to say, there were many circumstances surrounding the decision and while potentially justified, it was enacted clumsily, due to the (obvious) heightened emotional context. After listening to the situation I shared my observation that it needed to be done, but could have been done better. Once this was acknowledged and the principal gave an apology, the matter drew to a close.

Being in a position of authority doesn’t make the difficult conversations any easier. Leadership is often defined in terms of opposites – autocratic vs democratic, task-oriented vs people-oriented. Today’s leaders need to be  holistic. In the uncertainty and shifting times of this century, we actually need to be able to embrace this duality of leadership.

Especially women.

It has been fascinating reading about Margaret Thatcher over the last week since her death. Kaiser and Kaplan in their HBR post (16 April, 2013), ‘Thatcher’s Greatest Strength Was Her Greatest Weakness’, write:

…we will remember Margaret Thatcher as much for her leadership style as for her polarizing politics – in fact, the two are almost identical… she attacked the status quo and stuck to her guns in driving her agenda through opposition.

But as the title says, her greatest strength was also her weakness. Thatcher embodied the “assertive forceful approach” at the expense of “a participative, enabling approach.” She definitely wasn’t described as a feminist. It could be argued that she displayed femininity, Thatcher took great care to manage her ‘look’ – the hair, the suits and the style, she didn’t see the need to dress in a masculine way to compete in a male world. However, her manner presented a different side when faced with her rivals:

“I must say the adrenaline flows when they really come out fighting at me and I fight back. I stand there and say, ‘Now come on Maggie, you are wholly on your own; no one can help you.’ And I love it.” (Quoted in Kaiser & Kaplan, 2013)

Says it all – this was the era of the lone, strong, decisive leader. This is not the leadership required today. Thatcher is not my role model as a female leader.

I am committed to growing women in leadership:

1. We need more women to stand up as leaders

2. We need to be both/and leaders

3. We need to support and encourage one another

When I was reading Lean In, I found myself describing the book and sharing the ideas with my friends, yet discounting it as ‘feminism’, until I got to the chapter that challenged me and the use of the F-word. Sandberg writes,

Social gains are never handed out. They must be seized. Leaders of the women’s movement… spoke out loudly and bravely to demand the rights we now have. Their courage changed our culture and our laws to the benefit of us all.

Currently, only 24% of women in the United States say they consider themselves feminist. Yet when offered a more specific definition of feminism – “a feminist is someone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes”  …rises to 65%

I’ve decide to embrace the word. ‘Fitting in’ as a female leader doesn’t involve pretending to be male. I need to be my authentic self, and this is the environment in which the people I lead will be able to flourish.

I am resolute about embracing the both/and of leadership. This means, that when I need to have the difficult conversation I try to do it in such a way that means I stick to my message, yet the person is valued and (hopefully) keeps dignity in tact.

It is never easy.

It often involves a sleepless night.

I’m not perfect.

I want to see a generation of women who can embrace the duality of leadership – with the right *measure of feminist and feminine.

Read Lean In.


*As soon as I wrote the word ‘measure’ I realised that this was the key. Another post on this coming up.



2 thoughts on “The feminine and feminist leadership challenge: Embracing the “both/and” rather than “either/or” #leaningin

  1. Thanks Anne. I am writing a paper on feminist discourse at the moment and that has led me to also question current society’s aversion to the term. In Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to be a Woman’ (which I really recommend you to read!), she suggests how ironic it is that the very generation who shuns the term ‘feminist’ is the one who benefits from the forerunning feminist movements. We can’t have it both ways.

    I am proud to be a feminist, and like you said, this ‘doesn’t involve pretending to be male’, an expectation of women that is still prevalent in many aspects of modern society. There needs to be much more encouragement of feminist leaders that express their own individuality, whatever that is. The world really needs it.


  2. Hi Anne, we have just started a Lean In Circle with women at our school and we’d love for you to come and join us for a meeting to hear your take on women and leadership. Contact me and we can discuss particulars if you’re interested. Thanks, Fiona.


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