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

  • POSTED ON JANUARY 19, 2022

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 me 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 exact 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 feminine leadership 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, the term “feminine leadership” is widespread. We hear it everywhere these days. But what does it actually mean? And what does it have to do with Co-Active?

Feminine Leadership Is Not Gender-Specific

First let’s rule out what it is not. Feminine leadership is not gender-specific. Feminine leadership is often collapsed with women’s leadership, 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 at hand: 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 the leadership qualities of masculine and feminine can be sticky, tricky and full of hidden landmines. As American philosopher Ken Wilber so aptly puts it, “In order to fully integrate, we must first differentiate.” Simply put, in order to see what qualities we need to develop as leaders, we must also acknowledge the qualities that we lack. This act of acknowledgement in itself requires discernment and humility. Discernment, a key masculine leadership quality, 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. Each of us possesses 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, as well as 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, focus, rationality, discipline and assertiveness. These masculine qualities were drilled into us in school, sports, clubs and at work. While these more directive leadership qualities are indeed needed and provide formidable strengths, they are not the sole ingredients for a healthy future.

Being out of balance with too much masculine is costly for any one leader, for any family, for any community, for country and certainly for our planet. We need 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 a 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 the masculine and feminine qualities.

Feminine leadership focusing 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.

As we are seeing playing out on the larger stage these days, feminine leadership is quickly climbing the charts to becoming a priority for all leaders to learn.

Learning Feminine Leadership

Michelle Obama, 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, qualities 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. The message he sends is that empathy is the key quality that, when used, leads to understanding and collaboration. This then helps innovation push its way through the often-messy journey towards 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 are able to demonstrate insight, kindness and the desire to energetically connect to and unlock true potential in others. Finally, once both sides are developed, it’s important to practice flexibility. Moving forward, masculinity and femininity are two options that a leader can use and manage with appropriateness and timeliness.

If you are recognizing ingredients of Co-Active 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 feminine leadership skills relationship first; being before doing.

Feminine leadership is growing. It is blooming inside us and around us. Look for the integration of feminine 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 each of our abilities to integrate our feminine and masculine leadership skills and qualities. Integration is foremost a personal journey.

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. Are you able to 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 that you get the most negative feedback around. For example, perhaps you are always late, or your feedback often comes across as critical. Are you able to 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 finding out more about your areas of strengths and possible areas of growth, check out a tool created just for that called The Spirit’s Compass.

This simple yet provocative tool was created by Spiral Leadership using two intersecting lines: The first line distinguishes 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 threatened, either physically or emotionally, even if the threat isn’t real.

Bonus inquiry: What does my integrated leadership look like?

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.

Abigail Prout Profile Photo
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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