Real Leaders

Leaders Who Almost Die For Their Followers

Mónica Oriol is a strong female leader if there ever was one. Former President of the Spanish YPO chapter and successful builder of Seguriber security services, she became the first woman to ever preside “Círculo de Empresarios”, the prestigious socioeconomic think tank including Spain’s most influential executives and business owners. Today Monica is paying very high prices. The kind that bring many great leaders to their knees. The hardest tests fall to those who are strongest. Or so they say.

It all started in an all too familiar way. She said what she thought about women’s struggle in the workplace. She said it in the way she says everything: with amazing strength, impacting and down-to-earth expressions, and fiery defiance in her eyes. Before she saw it coming, she was publicly burned on the stake in a modern day version of the obscure medieval witch hunts we’re supposed to be a lot smarter about. Apparently we’re not. For one thing, she laid down all the ugly facts about pregnancy, child care and how they pressure business models as we know them.

Being the tenacious, highly-educated, and even more demanding woman that she is, she had done her homework. Unfortunately, she’d also done everybody else’s. She pointed out all the ugly truths hidden in this complex debate. Which didn’t earn her many friends. It actually earned her enemies on every side of this subtly invisible war. Because Monica had the dubious privilege of planting her powerful flag on one of our most secretive and denied battle fields.

Men and women worldwide are engaged in an amazingly complex negotiation to redefine our roles in business, society, family, and even love. We have all been wounded by now in this war. And some of those wounds can run as deep and as thick as blood: breakups over work related absences, marital disputes over child care or eventually child custody, sexual harassment law suits and discriminating campaigns, gender violence, startup failures due to unfair exploitation of over-protective workforce policies…we could write an entire book about all the ways we are knifing each other in the painful process of materializing gender balance across the table. We hate to admit it. But we are all unknowingly at war with the opposite sex on some level.

And sometimes it hurts like hell. Fearless in her passion to shed light on the conflict between reproduction and profitability, Monica innocently became the “witch” everybody needed to burn. She became the perfect target for all sorts of abuse. Her reputation, her family, her business…everything connected to her has been mercilessly burned in social networks and Spanish media. Throwing stones at Monica was the perfect way to vent individual pain, anger and impotence under the protective umbrella of the anonymous crowd. And well, the media couldn’t stay away from the excitement. Let’s not forget.

Excitement brings crowds and crowds bring advertising income. It’s hard to find a journalist who can resist adding fuel to the flames. Last week I visited the valley of Baztan, in the North of Spain. Damp, cold and rainy most of the year, this valley holds many priceless secrets of Spanish History. There is a small town very near the French border with the most impossible name you can try to pronounce: Zugarramurdi. Wonderful way to practice rolling your r’s in Spanish, though! Zugarramurdi, as it turns out, is most famous for its caves and its witches.

Oh yes. Excitement and mystery abound in this magical valley. To cut a fascinating — and very well documented — long story short, 53 people were arrested by the Spanish Inquisition in the early sixteen hundreds. Accused of witchcraft, most of them were painfully pardoned or punished for minor crimes. But eleven of them were burned. Well, excuse me. Half of these last poor souls didn’t make it to the burning stake. They died during interrogations. It is one of the most obscure witch hunt episodes in Europe. Crazy, inflamed persecutions were heartily executed by mostly ignorant, fearsome crowds.

Some say that many of these witch hunts were initiated against powerful women. Women who were independent, or owned land that somebody else wanted. Women whose influence was built on ancient herbal remedies to common illnesses in isolated mountain villages. Women who may have facilitated community gatherings in evocative caves just outside Zugarramurdi: Emotional ceremonies to heal and mourn losses among the peoples of Baztan, where paganism fought an undercover rebellion against the growing authority of the Catholic Church for centuries.

Women with fiery defiance in their eyes, strong words and fearless passions. It’s never been exclusive to women, however. Celtic male druids, aboriginal shamans and the very Catholic apostles went through similar ordeals. Spiritual guides, shamans and druids were nuclear leaders to small tribal societies. It’s just all too easy to fire up a wounded, ignorant crowd against a powerful leader. We’ve done it so many times in so many ways in human history.

It’s quite humbling to acknowledge that we’re still doing it today, with all our university degrees, sophisticated knowledge and internet technology. And it’s scary to realize that sometimes these horribly destructive media frenzies aren’t even sparked intentionally by an obscure, machinating villain. They just happen. Like a burning blaze blowing across miles of forestry just because some guy roasted a couple marshmallows in the wrong corner of the woods.

I guess the hardest tests do come to the strongest leaders, don’t they? I hate to see a well-proven, generally respected leader like Monica be treated in this manner. Especially considering the fact that she is one of the very few women who have reached the circles of power where public policy and business practice are defined for us all. Most ardently knowing how hard she has fought to build everything she has, as well as every job, every area of economic growth, and every innovation she has brought to her fellow citizens. Still, I am grateful. I am unspeakably grateful to Monica.

Somebody has to “take the bull by the horns”, as we would say in Spanish, if we want to tackle our dwindling birth rates and enormous child care and educational challenges without killing our companies. Spain is not alone in this. All developed countries are struggling with these demons. If it weren’t for fearless, passionate women leaders like Monica, we might be stuck in obscure denial and passive inaction for a long time yet.

Let her undeserved punishment bring awareness to our crowds and enlightened inspiration to our policy makers. And let us all acknowledge the inner strength and bravery of those who are willing to die, physically or economically, to help us all resolve our own inner battles. Gracias Mónica.

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