Ideas & Insights Lessons in Feminine Leadership

Lessons in Feminine Leadership


Mar 13th 2011

SEWA is a living example of how organizations can grow in a way that helps millions, the so many poor, to find a better life. It is an antithesis and an antidote to the failure of markets and the financial system in the US and Europe during the last couple of years. SEWA’s example starts from the self-employed woman, forming a group, building a cooperative and then a movement which meets the challenges of transforming poverty in a sustainable way – where work is a source of dignity, building a sense of community and respect for our planet.

The first time I met Elaben and Reemaben, when we visited SEWA in Gujarat, I realized I was witnessing something very special. In the beginning, it was the strong feelings that these groups evoked which was most startling to me. I have visited many factories, in both developed and developing countries, market, and communist economies and they have always felt dry, hard and so difficult to make sense of. But when we visited SEWA’s design centre and plant in Ahmedabad, I remember the distinct feeling, ‘I want to stay here; this is what development is all about.’ For me this was extraordinary. Women working in groups, creating new products, taking the designs to the villages, where other women would stitch them under a tree, in their own time, and then have the final product picked up for the factory where they would be distributed to the ultimate user.

So I tried to understand what this means for our work on development and found three reasons why SEWA’s experience is relevant for the new world.

First, SEWA has grown organically, very much like nature grows. It is constantly changing and adapting to the needs that emerge over time. Many times it is unclear what the answer to a problem is, but over time the solutions appear. As Elaben says in her book, SEWA is similar in structure to a Banyan tree. It has branches that grow, and eventually become trunks themselves. Some branches will die, some will grow much more than anticipated, and the beauty of the whole will always be. We are seeing that, both in the sciences and in new models of organizational behavior, human beings are trying to emulate nature to push the boundaries of knowledge. Some of the most advanced models in scientific prototypes are borrowing the principles from nature: construction materials that adapt to the needs of the structure, growing stronger in mass where there is weight-bearing or material that moulds to heat or cold; or the prototypes of solar-powered nano-plants that emulate the design of an ivy plant to maximize solar absorption and produce light. Also in organizational development, the new models talk about the task of leadership as that of creating the right nurturing environment for people, teams, and organizations to grow, without a goal, or a master plan, but rather creating the conditions for the institution to emerge in whatever way it must to solve the problem at hand.

Second, SEWA shows how development is about transformation. As she develops SEWA, Elaben knows that there are no easy answers and accepts that we have to fail many times. At the worst moments, the women in SEWA have just paid their loan when a natural disaster hits and they have to borrow again. The problems of women not having access to credit, the difficulties of finding opportunities for making a living in rural areas, the vastly different bargaining power of a small producer and large market conglomerates, are some of the most difficult questions that we struggle with in economics. SEWA has been able to tackle these questions by experimenting, thinking outside of the box, failing, correcting course, trying again, pulling in resources from outside the organization to help them innovate and find new ways of tackling old problems. And by taking one step at a time, having the patience to let things work or fail as they need to. The task of transformation is pre-sent all through the development field. We face them every day: How do you work with the poorest of the poor? How can rural livelihoods succeed in bringing sustainable income to the communities? Why do governments fail to deliver education and health, when money is not the issue? How should small producers position themselves when large conglomerates want to purchase their produce? These are very difficult questions that need to be understood and approached as a transformational challenge. Letting the market do the work is no longer the accepted answer. It has shown its limits during the financial crisis as well as in our inability to live within our environmental constraints.

Third, SEWA represents the feminine. Closely linked to nature, the feminine task is to hold, to be a container that will allow people and groups to grow. The feminine has no set goals, but rather values the process of unfolding and learns from it. The feminine has a different sense of time: the work will take whatever time is needed. And SEWA has taken over thirty years to reach a million women. The feminine looks at the group and tries to include the whole, waiting for those left behind, even when it delays the process. This third aspect of SEWA’s success is the one I would like to focus in the rest of this paper.

What is feminine leadership? Why do we need it? Feminine and masculine qualities appear to be opposites but they are intimately linked and in need of each other: the balance of differences, the union of separates, the yin and the yang. Too much masculine energy leads to war, violence, and predatory competition at the expense of well-being for all. Too much feminine energy would probably result in delays in decision-making and too much focus on relationships rather than on results. Our world would benefit from redefining this balance, by calling upon the feminine in all of us to be part of our collective culture so we can balance the masculine energies already present in public spaces, to address the world’s most pressing problems with the benefit of both.

Masculine traits are familiar to all of us today since they are the predominant culture in our workplace. This type of leadership has brought very important achievements in the world as we know it. Men naturally look for results and solutions. They are very focused on the goal at hand and follow logical decision-making processes. Who is right takes precedence over what is the right thing to do. Men want a hierarchical ordering of principles and structures. They focus on objectives that lead to individual achievement and strive for personal excellence. Men feel comfortable with the notion that competition furthers the development of individual talents.

Studies about the characteristics of female leaders show that the feminine values cooperation over competition; consensus over control; teamwork over hierarchy; intuition and sensing more than the rational; long term gains more than short term success. Women have natural tendencies to listen and to have empathy; to involve others and build relationships; to connect with others and to build networks. Most women want to work in a place where they can have their voices heard and enact systemic change within a community.

There are many books and articles that have been published in the last decade that analyze the main characteristics of women in leadership positions. The literature is very rich for women in US companies, there is some in European companies and very little in the developing world. This is obviously related to the difference in numbers across the world, but I suspect that feminine and masculine qualities are universal, part of a global culture, and a collective unconscious that is common to all countries.

A 2005 study by Caliper (Princeton management consulting firm) and Aurora (UK organization) found that women leaders in both the US and the UK shared similar profiles. ‘They have a stronger need to get things done, were found to be more empathetic and flexible, and had stronger interpersonal skills than their male counterparts… enabling them to read situations accurately and take information in from all sides… able to bring others around because they genuinely understand and care about where others are coming from… so that the people they are leading feel more understood, supported and valued.’1

They summarized their findings as follows:

1. Women leaders are more persuasive than their male counterparts.

2. When feeling the sting of rejection, women leaders learn from adversity and carry on with an ‘I’ll show you’ attitude.

3. Women leaders show an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem-solving and decision-making.

4. Women leaders are more likely to ignore rules and take risks.

In her book, The Female Advantage: Women’s Way of Leadership, Sally Helgsen says that one of the main differences in the way women lead is that they do it by connecting a web instead of leading through a hierarchical structure. ‘The ability to model and persuade is important in an organization where authority is not imposed from the top down… In a web structure …talent is nurtured and encouraged rather than commanded, and many interconnections exist. Influence and perception take the place of giving orders. Compassion, empathy, inspiration and direction, are all aspects of nurturance and connective values.’ (p. 225)

Joanna Barsh, in her book about How Remarkable Women Lead, talks about four common characteristics found in the women she researched: (i) Meaning and a sense of purpose is what inspires them; (ii) Connecting with sponsors, followers, the people in the organization, and clients is essential to them; (iii) Engaging: they take ownership for opportunities and for taking risks; and (iv) Energizing: they have learned how to manage their energy reserves and tap into the flow.

In India, we can find many examples of the success of feminine leadership in Self Help Groups (SHGs), which started in Andhra Pradesh and now reach 13 million women. As in SEWA, in the SHGs only women are accepted, management committees are composed exclusively of women, and the whole federation is managed and run by women. As they connect and become part of a supportive group, their latent leadership talents emerge and their self-confidence is built and reinforced within the SHGs. They get together to join their savings, they decide what they want to buy together – a buffalo for milk – they collectively organize to get a chiller that will keep the milk and so on. Organically, the economic activities emerged, and together they have improved the productivity of one million hectares of land, produced a million liters of milk, and trained and found jobs for 400,000 youth.

In Mexico, I saw a similar organization in San Juan de Michoacán, run by an indigenous community. Although they were mostly men, they were working under feminine principles. One of their assets was strong community organization, and the motivation to break from the long-term decline in their incomes. They took stock of their main natural resource, the forest, and started their development process by sending some of the young comuneros to get an education in forestry and management. They obtained technical assistance to plan for the cutting of trees in a sustainable way so that the forest would always be protected. As time went on, they started different communal enterprises in an organic way. They obtained a certificate as an environmentally responsible enterprise, which limited the number of trees that could be cut and increased the value of their products. They built a sawmill, a water bottling factory for the water coming down from the mountains, and then several log cabins for tourists looking for pristine nature. Today, they produce furniture for one of the top stores in Mexico. This has allowed them to employ and train the young kids in the community so that they don’t need to migrate to the US or to larger cities.

We can find similar examples in the private sector. Audor Capital in Iceland brought feminine values into finance which helped them survive Iceland’s financial meltdown. They believe women bring different values to the table, which makes for better decision-making and less herd behavior. Audor Capital operates on the basis of four values: (i) Risk awareness – don’t invest in things you don’t understand; (ii) Straight talking: use simple language and tell the bad news; (iii) Emotional capital: doing emotional due diligence is as important as doing financial due diligence because people make the decisions; and (iv) Profit vs. Principles: look at profit and the social and environmental impact of what they finance.2

Acumen Foundation’s experience with patient capital is an example of how these principles were applied in Africa. Jacqueline Novogratz, its CEO says their success is based on the ability to listen combined with the willingness to go the long haul and providing finance with management assistance. Thinking how business and the social aspect could be fused, the company produced affordable malaria bed nets that could last for five years. Sumitomo provided capital and UNICEF purchased the nets. They are now producing eight million nets per year and employ 5,000 workers, 90 percent of whom are unskilled women.3

In this paper I have shared the lessons from SEWA, focusing on feminine leadership as one of its salient features. I have also reviewed some of the studies about women in leadership positions and explored other organizations, NGOs, and the private sector, where these same principles have been successfully applied.

The picture that emerges is that if we blend the preponderant culture with more feminine attributes, new possibilities open up for the most difficult development challenges. Poverty can be reduced by empowering the women in their communities to find their own answers, organically growing to solve problems as they emerge. On climate change, more of the feminine will help us integrate our relationship to nature so we do not exhaust our planet. On conflict, women bring a point of view that doesn’t see war as something to be won, but as a cause of death and suffering for everyone, and so the feminine is a strong force for peace. The feminine is needed not just in the form of more women leaders but also in the form of men honoring the feminine in them. Feminine leadership is needed so that the poor like they have done in SEWA, can find development solutions that have meaning for them and are allowed the time it will take to get there. More feminine leadership is needed to balance the masculine models that abound, which alone have not been able to produce the world we want.