Over the years I have trained and coached hundreds of women to help them advance their careers in corporations, foundations and start-ups. From the smart engineers of ArcelorMittal who had braved their way through remote mining assignments in places where women are at serious risk, to posh strategy consultants at Boston Consulting Group who avoided political landmines on a daily basis in multi-billion dollar strategy projects…
The challenges we discussed were often similar: more networking despite life balance constraints, better visibility and greater assertiveness when negotiating were almost always on the table.
The one thing I have never discussed with women leaders is running with wolves. I was reminded this weekend of a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for the last ten years. I bought it in a small bookstore in Paris on the Rue de Rivoli because the title called me in some way: Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I must confess I’ve picked it up several times over the years and read a couple pages, but no more. Until this weekend.
This is exactly what is missing in all our training, coaching and theorizing about women’s leadership: the pleasure of running with wild wolves. And I would go as far as inviting men to read this book as well. It’s twenty years old now. But it brings together a collection of myths and stories about the archetype of the wild woman.
That collective ideal hidden somewhere inside all our minds that describes the most animal, guttural, instinctive, passionate, unruly part of feminine nature. We have lost touch with this part of ourselves, both women and men. Because women who shy away from the wild within them can’t teach their men to adore and admire the she-wolves in other women either.
For years I’ve been telling women to learn to play the rules of male power games if they ever want to have a say in how the rules are shaped. So we talk about doing more networking and getting out there to give talks, get on high-visibility projects, smile at the camera from the center of the picture instead of the sideline. We match high-potential women with super-powerful men to help them think about business the way men do. Not because it’s any better. Just because that’s the way business has been conducted for centuries now.
To the point that the few women that do make it to the top are often accused of being more macho than the men themselves. And guess what? Women hate it. They absolutely hate it. They hate leaving their kids home alone to go schmooze after a long day of work in order to get on the CEO’s agenda. They hate having to dominate conversations to get their budgets approved and they hate working so hard they often forget what if feels like to be a woman at all. An INSEAD report by Professor Herminia Ybarra a couple of years ago showed that mentored men still got more promotions and career opportunities than mentored women.
There is something deeply insulting to all women about being made to behave like men in order to get any serious business done around here. And the insult goes way deeper because it’s not only about how we work. It’s also about how we mother our kids and how we dress, how we must diet to stay fit, and how we’re supposed to be interested in fifty shades of acrobatic sex at any given moment!! The pressure on women to fulfill ridiculous ideals of any and every kind is so pervasive across industries, stereotypes and role models, in every possible aspect of our lives, that we are all killing the woman inside ourselves. Slowly but surely.
Domesticating her to extinction, just as we’re spoiling our planet with dirt, trash, plastic and compulsive consumerist ignorance. It’s like we’re asking women to lead from their heads, leaving their bodies behind them. We advise their minds to express concepts like men do, to take over meetings like young unthinking studs do. We tell them to study men’s strategies and imitate them. And we say to their bodies: “Forget what you feel, ignore your emotions, don’t cry in the office, and for heaven’s sake, please don’t act crazy around executives because they really can’t take it!”
Is it any wonder this line of work is not getting us anywhere at all? Statistics of women in top leadership crawl up and down year after year like a depressed snail on a very slippery wall. If you want to lead, women, run with the wolves! Learn to value and honor everything that is wild inside of you. It’s the source of your passion, your creativity, your selfless nurturing of family, business and society around you.
Forget the rules of how men achieve success. Get people’s attention without doing anything to look for it. Just stand in all your feminine, provocative strength. Uncover your own way of solving problems, building business, fueling profitability that doesn’t kill nature. Above all, stop feeling ashamed of what you are. Stop believing that you are weak, helpless or in need of a protective Daddy to haul you to the top. In her book, Pinkola Estés describes a dream in which she was standing on the shoulders of an old woman, or a crone, as Irish might call her. She asks the woman to stand on her instead, but the crone tells her that it would not make sense. She too is standing on the shoulders of a much older woman.
The strength of women comes from standing on their mothers’ shoulders. Just as she-wolves learn to howl with their own mother wolves in the wilderness. We draw our strength from our mothers. It’s not about what they studied or whether they worked outside the home. It’s about the female torrent of energy that runs through generations and generations of women before us.
Even further back in time, serene wisdom and an instinct for chaos made females perfect leaders of mammal packs… even the first human deities were women. We learn to howl with power and influence by leaning on our mothers, grandmothers, and all the women who lived before us. A woman who knows her own worth is irresistible. She doesn’t go find suitors, investors or buyers. She lets them find her. A woman who dares to become crazy with emotion can conquer chaos and surf crisis like nobody else.
A woman who enjoys the sheer pleasure of running with wolves, or horses, or any other wild animal around her is in touch with the deepest currents of nature that shape our world. And the man who stands beside her will never fear the future again.