This coming weekend, I’m going to talk to some Arnhem Together ladies about women and leadership. Me. Yeah, the girl who’s never had a formal leadership position, perhaps ever anywhere.
For me to talk about leadership, I needed to reframe it. The working world hasn’t been my place for leadership. It probably never will be. That’s actually alright with me.
Where do I feel like a leader? At home.
At home, I’m trying to put two human beings into the world who will be kind, responsible, and strong. I’m steering a family towards healthier eating habits for our bodies as well as the earth. I’m coaching myself and my husband to respond from empathy and to stay calm just a moment longer each time we feel anger coming.
At home, I’m work every day bring my family along by being the absolute best person I can be, which isn’t so particularly best – but I really am trying.
And why isn’t this the model of leadership women can be proud of or embrace or put out in the world? Why aren’t there best-selling books about mother leaders and the enormous an arduous journey they take their families on?
Parenting isn’t particularly high-profile work, it turns out. It’s taken for granted by the people who do it and the rest of the world follows suit.
But I don’t want to talk about not being hear or seen or acknowledged. I want to think about how powerful this model is.
My first instincts were to look to women’s myths. To look to midwives and healers instead of CEOs as examples of leadership. I took a copy of Women who Run with the Wolves by Clariss Pinkola Estés with me on vacation. The subtitle is “Myths and stories of the wild woman archetype.” It seemed like the prefect approach to this leadership question.
Then I got distracted. Blame the fairy tales.
By the time the women and leadership question came up again, I was up to my elbows in Cinderella. Still am.
Thinking about women and leadership in fairy tales is not going to make you particularly happy, though. Women in fairy tales fall into two categories. One group is almost entirely without agency; Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. The other group has power and is therefore wicked. Here you can pick your step-mother or witch.
At a brief glance, it looks like in fairy tale world, power corrupts fairly absolutely and that the only way women end up happy is if they are complacent, obedient, and kind.
This analysis didn’t leave me much happier than the Lean In approach to women and leadership. Is the idea that women can’t handle power?
Looking around, I found a couple books about fairy tales and women leaders. One book is called From Cinderella to CEO: how to master the 10 lessons of fairy tales to transform your work life. One academic article described women leaders including Oprah as Cinderella stories.
These didn’t feel to me like they got to the essence of either the fairy tales or the women’s stories. What they did was use a fairy tale to frame familiar themes of leadership as time management and rags-to-riches stories.
They did, however, help me see the problem with my first analysis. I was linking leadership and power. Power, whether in business or in magic, isn’t the thing that makes a leader. A leader is made by action.
Not sure about that? All I have to do is think back on the “We Have a Dream” exhibit at Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam that my son wanted to see last fall. It was about Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. Leadership through action.
I took that back to my fairy tales and thought more about the unique situation that expats are in. In particular, following spouses who find themselves in foreign situations absent of the external framework of work. It’s not an easy thing to do. Doing it well can be one of the greatest challenges we face.
So, I’m getting there, framing leadership as action and not power. Looking to fairy tales for examples and maybe even inspiration. It turns out I’ll be talking about Cinderella again. Still working out the kinks – but ever so eager to find out what folks will think!