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Feminine Leadership: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and Why It Matters

feminine leadership blog image

Amid the happy chaos of Christmas morning, my 14-year-old daughter unwraps a calendar with these words on the cover: The Future Is Female. A lively discussion between our two kids, my husband and I, on the truths and challenges of that sentiment thus ensues.

Women rule!” crows our 12-year-old at one lively point in our rowdy conversation.

“But how is that any different from men ruling over women?!” counters our 14-year-old.

“Surely there is some positive aspect of the masculine that can help to serve the future?” My husband courageously speaks up as the only man in the room. I sigh and lean back onto the couch.

What is Feminine Leadership?

This Christmas day debate is a more raucous version of the dialogue that has been looping in my mind for several years. Even before I started Spiral Leadership, an early feminine leadership program, in 2017, I was designing, exploring, expanding, promoting, and validating the more feminine aspects of our leadership capacities.

To be honest, I have never sat easily with the term “feminine leadership” and have been going round and round with the validity of promoting it as distinct from integrated, whole, or conscious leadership. Five years ago, when people were less familiar with the phrase, I found myself explaining what I understood feminine leadership to mean at every turn: namely, the qualities that have been traditionally associated with women are needed now to balance out the bias towards masculine qualities (those traditionally associated with men) that have come to define how we think about leadership in our western culture.

Five years later, this term is widespread. We hear it everywhere these days. But what does it mean? And what does it have to do with Co-Active?

Feminine Leadership is Not Gender-Specific

First, rule out what it is not. Feminine leadership is not gender-specific. It often collapses with women leaders, which it is decidedly not. Many assume that masculine and feminine leadership energies are associated with a person’s biology — that only men embody masculine leadership traits or that women have a monopoly on feminine leadership traits. This common misunderstanding maps out a perfect battleground for the exhausting, unproductive, and damaging war of the sexes and creates a lively distraction from the actual challenge: the work of personal integration of feminine and masculine leadership qualities. This integration requires that we first understand the distinction between masculine and feminine.

Differentiating between masculine and feminine leadership qualities can be sticky, tricky, and full of hidden landmines. As American philosopher, Ken Wilber so aptly puts it, “To fully integrate, we must first differentiate.” Simply put, to see what qualities we need to develop as leaders, we must also acknowledge the qualities we lack. This act of acknowledgment in itself requires discernment and humility. Discernment is a key masculine leadership quality that allows you to ascertain and judge well. Humility, a feminine leadership quality, allows you to be receptive and open to new ideas and to appreciate the strengths and contributions of others.

The masculine and feminine are like yin and yang. They are both essential for us as a species to survive and thrive with each other and on this planet. We possess both sides, what Carl Jung refers to as anima and animus — our feminine and masculine elements, which exist in an “active” or a “sleeping” form. Exploring and building our feminine leadership requires looking into the capacities for leadership that we already possess, the ones that are already “active” in us, and inquiring into the ones that lie dormant or are “sleeping.”

Countering Western Bias Toward Masculine Leadership

As many have observed, our western culture has a huge bias towards masculine leadership. The vast majority of us were raised to associate masculine qualities with leadership. These qualities include competition, goal orientation, risk-taking, focus, determination, rationality, discipline, and assertiveness. These masculine qualities were drilled into us in school, sports, clubs, and work. While these more directive leadership qualities are indeed needed and provide formidable strengths, they are not the sole ingredients for a healthy future. Women and leadership should be associated normally.

However, according to a study, women make up 58.4% of the US workforce in September 2022, but women hold only 35% of senior leadership positions.

Being out of balance with too much masculinity is costly for any one leader, for any family, for any community, for the country, and certainly for our planet. We need to look no further than the current imbalance of our world — as evidenced by the growing global climate crisis, severe economic inequalities, and disenfranchisement of people based on race and gender — to see that masculine-dominant leadership by itself is not sufficient or sustainable. To take the more feminine metaphor of the recipe for a healthy future further, engaging only masculine leadership qualities is like trying to cook without the main ingredient. Cue the entrance of feminine leadership for our future’s recipe for success.

The most successful leaders of the future will have integrated the best of both masculine and feminine qualities.

Feminine leadership focuses on relationships. These qualities include compassion, receptivity, collaboration, sensitivity, empathy, intuition, cooperation, nourishing, inclusion, creativity, vulnerability, enhancing the self-worth of others, systems thinking, generosity, and altruism. According to a study, flexible leadership charm, ability to inspire, and intelligent motivating ability of feminine leadership assists with knowledge sharing and employee performance.

As we see playing out on the larger stage, feminine leadership is quickly climbing the charts to become a priority for all leaders to learn.

Learning Feminine Leadership

Michelle Obama, the former first lady of the United States, wrote the book A Feminine Leadership in 2017. In it, she shares the strategies she used to become, in some ways, an even more popular leader than her husband. These are skills typically associated with women, such as compassion, communication, and solidarity. “Qualities,” she writes, “that her male counterparts tended to lack.”

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO and Fortune Magazine’s 2019 Businessperson of the Year wrote Hit Refresh in 2017. The book emphasizes empathy as the main quality to work towards to create a thriving organization. He sends the message that empathy is the key quality that leads to understanding and collaboration when used. This helps innovation push its way through the often-messy journey toward helpful products.

Feminine leadership belongs to all of us.

It is a state of being that recognizes and understands that we are part of this planet to connect, learn, share and evolve. Integrated with healthy masculine qualities, it creates space for unique creativity, inclusiveness, collaboration, and supportive competition. Those who step authentically into their feminine when leading can demonstrate insight, kindness, and the desire to energetically connect to and unlock the true potential in others. Finally, it’s important to practice flexibility once both sides are developed. Moving forward, masculinity and femininity are two options that a leader can use and manage with appropriateness and timeliness.

Co-Active and Feminine Leadership

If you recognize Co-Active ingredients here, you are not mistaken. Indeed, feminine leadership is the “Co” of our Co-Active coaching and leadership models. At the Co-Active Training Institute, we are committed to building our skills on this type of leadership; relationship first, being before doing.

Feminine leadership is growing. It is blooming inside us and around us. Look for the integration of this leadership inside yourself and out in the world. Let yourself be inspired by the ways that others embody these qualities. Allow yourself to shift from the old ways of “compare and despair” to true inspiration.

As we begin this new year, we find ourselves at a significant turning point that is greatly affected by our abilities to integrate our feminine and masculine leadership skills and qualities. Integration is foremost a personal journey.

Growing as a Woman Leader

Think about your own leadership growth. Take a minute to identify areas of core strengths. Hint: these are the qualities that people naturally lean on you to bring — in your family, work, and hobbies. Can you identify these core strengths as leaning more towards masculine or feminine qualities? These are the qualities that you already have handled.

How about areas of lack or “growth areas”? Hint: these are the areas where you get the most negative feedback. For example, perhaps you are always late, or your feedback often comes across as critical. Can you identify these lacking qualities as leaning more towards masculine or feminine qualities? Developing these qualities will have the most positive impact on your leadership.

If you are interested in discovering more about your strengths and possible growth areas, check out The Spirit’s Compass tool. This simple yet provocative tool was created by Spiral Leadership using two intersecting lines: The first line distinguished between Above the Line and Below the Line and was coined by the folks at Conscious Leadership. Above the Line can be described as conscious, open, generative, life-affirming, and curious.

Below the Line can be described as closed, defensive, degenerative, life-snuffing, and committed to being right. Based on millennia of survival instinct, we tend to go below the line when we feel physically or emotionally threatened, even if the threat isn’t real.

As I lean back on the couch, I feel the glow of the fire, smell the hot cider bubbling on the stove, and enjoy the cheerful banter of my family.

I offer my words into the fray, “How about this?” I say, smiling, “The future is also female.”

How about you? What does your integrated leadership look like? How do you apply feminine leadership? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Written By

Abigail Prout

Abigail’s dream is to inspire deeper relationships with the Earth, ourselves, and each other. Specializing in spirit-led leadership through online courses and in-person retreats (Spiral Leadership), Abigail believes in the power of creativity to grow conscious evolution. With a background in therapy, she has worked as a professional leadership coach for the last 25 years and has spent the last 8 years as faculty for the Co-Active Training Institute, teaching coaching and leadership courses. Abigail won the 2021 Homebound Publications Poetry Prize, and her first book of poetry, Walk Deep, has won the Nautilus Book Award and is nominated for a pushcart prize. She offers classes on the art of leadership through creative writing. She lives on the small island of Lopez where she grew up in Washington State, with her husband, Clive (also CTI faculty), their two children, Iona and Jax, and her silky black lab, Bella.   

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