My leadership journey began in a field, in the late-1990s. A two-week dance camp to be precise. In the wilds of Dorset, living with the elements. I am an unashamed hippy at heart.
I had just finished my Masters research on organisations of the women’s movement – ie: those organisations that sought to improve the status and situation of women. The research reached the Australian Parliament thanks to Member, Ms Dundas. One of my findings was the aversion so many women within the sector, had to embracing the notion of leadership. They associated it with the hierarchy of patriarchal structures, and within the flat, consensus, collective structures of the women’s movement, leadership was almost taboo. For me, leadership is a skill I use to achieve goals in my life – whether professional, organisational or personal. It’s leadership that gets us there. The academic in me was curious. Why was leadership so taboo?
Back to the camp. It attracted a wide range of people from the arts, music as well as dance. There were creative activities every day, created by camp participants themselves. On the first day, I stepped up to offer to run a Women’s Circle. I enjoy the safety and comfort of a women-only space and I wanted to have that on offer in the camp. To my amazement, 30 women turned up. With so many events taking place, there were usually only 5-10 people attending an activity – I had three times that! We’re gonna need a bigger tepee I thought.
I had no plan of what we were going to do, nor process we were going to follow. I just knew that we had to gather as a circle. Women gathering in circle is a time-honoured tradition that is universal. The Circle provides a place where feminine values and ways of being are not just tolerated, but honoured and nourished.
There is undeniable power in the shape of the circle. It is one of the fundamental energy patters in the natural world. Circles collect and focus energy. We sit facing one another, mirroring one another, no one higher or more prominent. Women facing inward. Circles are soothing, comforting and challenging[i].
I was no expert when it came to leadership – it was curiosity and inquiry that was driving me. This makes the circle is a perfect structure. A circle recognises that there are no experts and that we are all learners together.
So, we sat in Circle and I began by asking why people had come and what they wanted from a Women’s Circle? A safe place to come on camp, was a common theme, along with a space for nourishment, creativity and discovery. I was last to go in the round, and I shared my academic curiosity about women and leadership. I wanted to explore it more with the different demographic of women in the circle. The camp was family-friendly and there were a lot of mothers attending. They all pounced on the idea! There was excitement to explore the notion of women and leadership. So much so, we agreed to meet the same time, each day, for the camp and see where our journey would take us.
Word went round the camp, more women joined us. We were moved to a geometric dome to accommodate the larger group of 40 women. The academic in me always needs to begin with a definition. That way we can all be on the same page about what we are investigating. I wanted to understand what leadership meant in this circle, and more significantly what was effective leadership?
Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools an educator can draw upon. Storytelling gives us an opportunity to learn from another person’s experience. It can shape, strengthen or challenge our beliefs and values. When a story catches our attention and engages us, we are more likely to absorb the message and meaning within it. Presented as facts and figures, the same message can be lost.
And so, I asked the women to identify an occasion in their life, when they had an experience of effective leadership. I wanted to identify those critical ingredients of what is deemed effective leadership. So, I asked them in the story of their experience, to identify what the leader(s) did, how they did it, and why they did it. The women broke up into dyads, and storytelling began.
A plenary session brought together all of the ingredients we had amassed from our stories. The first powerful realisation for us all, was that when we looked at the ingredients we had identified, we all knew how to do them! There was nothing startling or unique in the ingredients – they were the standard coaching, mentoring, role-modelling, championing, advocating, styles evident amongst those leaders with high EQ (emotional quotient). The discovery lay in the insight for that circle of women, that they were doing leadership every day in their lives.
There is a delicious word in academia – epistemology – that took me ages to grasp. It simply means “understanding ways of knowing and ways of being” in the world. In that Women’s Circle in a field in SW England, so an epistemological journey began for me over the next decade. I took my questions out into many settings after I left that field.
At the University of East London my idea to create an academic course was welcomed and led to the development of the first postgraduate module in Women & Leadership in Public & Third Sector Organisations, in the UK. The module ran for 9 years at UEL. I also created residential courses – Women’s Leadership Circles and Sacred Circles for Women – to take the inquiry out to a wider audience. I was invited to take my inquiry to the USA, Romania as well as all over the UK. I ran a five-year leadership programme with women from a multicultural community health project situated in one of the poorest parts of East London. I delivered a women’s leadership programme for officers from Surrey Police. From 1999 to 2006, in collaboration with the Royal Institute for Public Administration (RIPA), I delivered the inquiry to a women’s international leadership programme for government ministers, civil servants and senior managers from Commonwealth Countries. In all, there have probably been over 1,000 participants from 1999-2008 who have identified ingredients of effective leadership.
What those ingredients are, and the epistemology of women’s leadership is another story! You will have to come on one of our courses to find out.
As we move through the Time of Covid, I have brought my inquiry to life again. What are the ingredients of effective leadership as we navigate unprecedented terrains in our lives? A fully virtual Women’s Leadership Circle is commencing on 24th January to explore this. The time zone is set to accommodate those in the USA and Australia. So, if you are a GMT-er like me, it will be a Midnight Experience if you want to join! Find out more here.
[i] Carnes RD & Craig S (1998) Sacred Circles: A Guide to Creating Your Own Women’s Spirituality Group, Harper, San Francisco, USA.