A dear friend asked me rather timidly for feedback over the phone yesterday. She is a friend because we’ve known each other for years now, working together occasionally and attending similar events. But she is precious to me because there’s something about her that is very endearing. Born to bring peace to every team she joins, she seems to care so much for others that she sometimes forgets to care for herself. We women approach power in such a very different way to men.
This friend, who we will call Sara, was yanked from out of the blue to take over a team of women during a business crisis which had forced our previous leader to resign. So caring more for our team than for herself, Sara ran to our rescue. What she rushed into, however, will probably compose one of the toughest management experiences in her future memoirs. Because when women fight for power… well, everything you might have witnessed among men pales in comparison.
The underlying issue we were battling with was precisely the way power and influence should be built and shared in our organization. Though we may have argued about this process, or that problem, what was really at stake was a fundamental division in how we built leadership. On one side the traditional women wielded power as it has been done in the last few male-dominated centuries, while on our side we defended a newer, more honest approach, which younger generations, bred in multinational corporations with more equality, have come to prefer.
Underneath the clutter, drama and strategy of our conversations we were actually testing the new against the old, the transparent against the secretive, the open against the closeted.
Underneath the clutter, drama and strategy of our conversations we were actually testing the new against the old, the transparent against the secretive, the open against the closeted. If we had been men it might have looked more spectacular from the sidelines: there may have been more stormy arguments during meetings, or direct blows to the heart for all to watch. But being women, we kept the surface of the waters mostly contained. Verbal knives took place behind closed doors. Telephone bills sky-rocketed as some exchanged visions one-to-one or coordinated attack plans to implement at future team meetings, while yet others manipulated gossip at private reunions to slyly attack their enemy as if they were doing nothing more than innocently pouring tea.
I don’t think I will ever forget this experience. It’s the best ever lesson in power, influence and leadership I’ve received up to now. It’s proved to me how much more multidimensional women’s communication, negotiation and persuasion can be compared to men’s. It’s the most interesting and challenging business riddle I’ve ever tried to solve, and now that it is over I’m not quite sure whether I won or whether I lost. What I do know is that we achieved our purpose: the open, new and honest will live on in our organization, while the closeted, old and secretive has been brought to its knees.
What I do know is that we achieved our purpose: the open, new and honest will live on in our organization, while the closeted, old and secretive has been brought to its knees.
My friend Sara inevitably drowned in the complexity of facilitating this battle for hearts and minds, trying to placate both sides. Failing miserably, poor woman. Around the more central frontal players stood a number of less involved team members, also trying to understand what was going on, enduring direct pressure to side with them or with us. The old recurred to well-known manipulative methods of persuasion: pushing emotional buttons and fostering a supportive sisterhood, which, in turn, imposed high prices on belonging. We, the young, remained open, transparent, focused on our goals and clearly above what we considered to be lowly tactics.
The old recurred to well-known manipulative methods of persuasion: pushing emotional buttons and fostering a supportive sisterhood, which, in turn, imposed high prices on belonging. We, the young, remained open, transparent, focused on our goals and clearly above what we considered to be lowly tactics.
The young have been luckier, you see. Because we grew up in a different world from the one our senior foes have known. So many women in history were never given a real chance to succeed as men did. Daughters of powerful men were asked to take a second place in favor of their brothers or husbands. The good wives of business moguls were expected to smile silently behind them, to have no opinion of their own, to want only what their men did. How did these women survive? The only way they could! With secrecy, closeted tactics and manipulative games of gossip. Defensive sororities became their only refuge against the injustice in their lives.
Men play these games as well, of course. Machiavelli comes to mind. But women are much better at it. And while only a few among hundreds or thousands of men become truly refined in these arts, most women live to master such hidden dynamics in their families, groups of friends and companies. Trust me, every truly sophisticated female sorceress who reads this will viciously deny what I’m saying. Because it only works if nobody sees what she is doing!! Get it? ;-)!
Oh yes! Being a woman leader is fun, fun, fun. All the way until it hurts, hurts, hurts. Such is the nature of life, business and war.
I remained silent when Sara asked me for feedback. On one hand there was nothing Sara could have done. There was no peace to be reached. Just as in an old favorite movie of mine starring Christopher Lambert, The Highlander, “there could only be one”. On the other hand, Sara had been carefully seduced into our older adversaries’ sorority way before this battle ever began. She was already hooked on comforting chats and seemingly innocent sharing of confessions at sisterhood parties which only included those who were loyal. The sisterhood had been a crucial resource of compassion and nurturing to her when she had needed it in the past. She had been chosen to fill the power void in our team by our opposers precisely because she was incapable of going against them. Poor Sara never saw it coming. Even now she might deny it.
In a new era of equal opportunity, however, I’m convinced these old sisterhoods will slowly disappear because they unknowingly nurture weakness while killing strength. They thrive on sentimental licking of each other’s wounds and viciously protect their own against all outer obstacles or threats. Belonging entails agreeing, submitting and kneeling down, while rebelling, disagreeing or confronting leads almost certainly to cruel exclusion. Or maybe even public lynching. All through very subtle female cues.
Ironically these sororities rob their sisters of the chance to grow and become independent, autonomous and strong.
Ironically these sororities rob their sisters of the chance to grow and become independent, autonomous and strong. Sara needs her sisterhood in order to find herself. Sara can not stand on her own two feet in the face of danger for too long before running back to the safety of her so called friends.
However, I see so much strength in Sara. I know what she has been through professionally and personally. I have witnessed her grow in grief, mature in struggle, patiently refining her ability to bounce back up after each fall. All Sara needs to flourish as a woman leader is to believe in herself more than she believes in the sisterhood. To care for her own needs and wants more than she cares for those of her sisters. I see the strong female warrior hiding deep inside her eyes. I hope Sara will see her one day too.
It’s time for women to lose these shared weaknesses and bravely feed our own inner strengths.
It’s time for women to lose these shared weaknesses and bravely feed our own inner strengths. Secretive sisterhoods did us great service when we were deprived of opportunities to lead. We can now say goodbye to such sisters as we step on to new roads of autonomous, independent and transparent female wisdom. God knows the world needs women’s wisdom more than ever before.