Last spring, as the new leaves were returning to the trees and the ferns were unfurling, I visited a year-one school startup to consult with the two women who were running it.
The ideas for the school were all about innovation, keeping children close to nature, and preserving the ideals of curiosity, self sovereignty, and relationship. The school was beautifully visioned and the positive response from the community had made for fast growth. And these women leaders were exhausted.
They were working incredibly long hours and the school had not yet met financial goals, which meant that it was running at a deficit. In response, to take care of the children and the vision, they worked harder. Of course they did. It’s what women visionaries do.
They were trying to get it to go, powering through, even despite not getting paid because they were paying the teachers first. And I was there as a school consultant, yes, but also a systems analyst, a women’s leadership guide, and as someone who connects land/vision/people together when there is a mission at work. In other words, I’m looking at systems, including the energetic flow in the system as a whole. Where is it leaking energy? Where is there an area that is out of integrity with the flow of the entire system of the mission?
And so I asked them, “Are you okay running this school if it requires that the school be run on feminine depletion? You are looking at creating a holistic school model, but what of your model is requiring the feminine to continue to run on depleted resources and energy?”
I heard back from them recently, a full half a year later, and the administrator told me, “There is not a day that goes by that I do not ask myself that question. It was the greatest guiding question I’ve received.”
You see, our systems have historically run on feminine depletion.
What do I mean by that? In short, I mean that in a patriarchal way of building and operating, we over-rely on masculine energetics: build, push, create, exert, make happen. And when we stay in that energetic for too long, we create an imbalance, which forces the feminine energetic to go into submission (getting what it can where it can, like 6 hours of sleep, a little exposure, or a little congratulatory high five now and again) or it’s just forgotten about altogether (which we’ve seen in our modern workplaces in the quest for more profit, more wins.)
When the feminine is depleted, we get women who over-give, women with hormonal disorders and weird health symptoms, the pushing down of things like intuition and taking time for an idea to gestate, and the unrealistic expectation that we are able to stay continually in go-mode.
But this of course doesn’t only affect women. It affects men in that they resist vulnerability or not having an answer, always wanting to maintain the image that everything is under control. And it has affected our ideas of leadership across the globe.
You can also begin to deduce from my simple examples here that it is not a gendered issue, and we’d be well served to move beyond the typical conversations of gender in the workplace and include instead these considerations of what healthy and unhealthy feminine and masculine leadership look like, and how they are expressed.
Historically, we’ve made “women’s leadership” and “feminine leadership” synonymous, and I want to state explicitly that they are not. Just because a woman is in a position of leadership does not mean that she is enacting feminine principles in the least. Even to write that, I can imagine that some readers may bristle at the word “feminine” being inserted into a conversation about leadership because the stigma is still that the feminine can’t lead for it’s “softness.”
But I will tell you that when we look at some of the most innovative research and actions taking place in the field of leadership, what is happening is the re-incorporation of the feminine archetype and feminine leadership behaviors. To name a few: shared decision making, collaboration, flexible scheduling, and allowing teams extended periods of time to create. All of these are aspects of feminine leadership whether we call it that or not.
Then why name it? Why name it as feminine or masculine? I strongly believe that in doing so, we can save a lot of time with a conceptual framework that also reduces many of the unspoken and tricky issues that are chalked up to gender in the workplace. It’s not differences in gender that are most important. What is most important is whether or not leaders value and know how to lead, incorporating both feminine and masculine leadership qualities, and whether they extend that to their cultures and teams.
Going back to the two women that I was coaching, as I asked them this question, “Are you okay with this place running on feminine depletion?,” they had already had an understanding of feminine and masculine, and so when I asked it, the real and deeper issue became more clear.
In trying to do the right thing, they were exhausting themselves and also running on exhausted financial resources. We can see that such a situation is unsustainable. And it is in the reconstructing of both the finances and the activities of the school into an equitable feminine / masculine collaboration that both of these issues can be corrected.
A world that didn’t value the feminine was also the world that created a very serious deficit in environmental sustainability. The two go hand in hand and this topic could be elaborated on quite extensively. And so for today, I’ll conclude that feminine leadership, which I would encourage all leaders to embrace regardless of gender, would not allow for the depletion of the feminine energetic, the earth, the resources, or the people. Often in our quest for power and profit, these are the very things that are depleted and overlooked. Women and men, and leaders of all kinds, it’s time for true thriving to include the wellness and sustainability of the feminine and masculine in harmony.
Just because women are in positions of leadership does not equate to the return of sustainable feminine leadership or respect for feminine qualities. True feminine leadership happens when we rebalance the inequitability of feminine & masculine in our actions, efforts, and energetics, and ensure the sustainability of systems, including the women themselves.
Sarah Poet is available for consultations with leaders of any gender and maintains an eye to the energetic efficiency of systems as we create a more sustainable and equitable world. To schedule, visit www.sarahpoet.com/book.