Reclaiming Leadership: A Crucible for Women

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Beth Killough

The alarm clock of change is buzzing. We’ve been pressing snooze. At first, the seven minute intervals of sleep were warm and cozy and delicious. But not so much anymore. We’re annoyed, even angry. It’s time to wake up!

There are significant turning points in our culture when we can see our human development and evolution more dramatically, times when the pressures and tensions to change our mindsets are exquisitely aligned and set up for transformation. We are at one of those points in history right now. Imagine the insides of a chemist’s crucible in which carefully selected elements are trapped so they can heat up, interact, and create something new. 

The paradigm of leadership is in that crucible, ready, even overdue, to become transformed. Even the word itself, leadership, falls flat and almost meaningless. It’s been overused, misused, and is ridden with the pain and trauma of hierarchical structures in our human groups.

The human endeavor of understanding and creating a language for relationship and group dynamics is relatively young, and it has been flawed in a couple of significant ways from the very start. First, most of the theoretical efforts originated in the early 1900s, and to no great surprise, the wide-spread ideas were canonized by men. While women have certainly contributed to the thought leadership in the last 25 years, it’s quite possible we’ve been building upon a faulty foundation. It’s a bit like constructing a nicely designed house on a sinkhole or remodeling a building that’s full of termites. We may need to level the whole mess and start over. 

The other major problem with the old leadership paradigm is that it abandoned a rich part of our human experience. While the brilliant capabilities of our human minds have created, invented, innovated, and propelled us forward in miraculous ways, we have left behind some of the fundamental elements of relationships that are universal to all mammals. 

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That’s right, I called you a mammal. You are a human animal, to be more specific. I say this with profound respect for our sophisticated thinking brains and our complex capacities for reason. Yet, when we over-rely on our intellectual selves, we stop using a wealth of our inner resources and signals that guide us to care for ourselves and others.  For women to own a leadership paradigm, we have to reclaim some of our natural instincts, body signals, and wise survival practices. 

Sound ancient and mystical? Well, they aren’t. These are powerful and practical tools for relating, and they are at the heart of how we stabilize and make safer the cultures of our groups. In the world of mammals, all cultures are created and maintained by the females in the groups. Feel free to read that sentence a few times to let it sink in. The implication here is profound. It may be time to step up and own a much needed role in our workplaces, families, classrooms, and communities. 

We may not be entirely ready to commit to a new definition of leadership; however, we can commit to the process. If we want a sturdier and more sustainable paradigm, we can start with some foundational concepts brought to us by, none other than, NATURE herself. I live on a ranch and with my herd of horses and a pack of dogs who are my most powerful teachers about relationship. They are always honest with their feedback and steadfast with their commitment to safety and stability in their groups. I refer to my horse herd as Mareadise because the cohesion and peace of their herd is like nothing I’ve seen in the human world. Perhaps Themyscira (also known as Wonder Woman Island) comes close. We only have fictional examples of female leaders setting culture. 

Here are a few of the core concepts described through the lens of the animal world, which can help us rethink a new leadership paradigm for the human herd: 

Culture is About Behavior

For animals, culture is remarkably basic and more attentive to survival. Group cultures are defined by the rules and norms of how individuals treat each other. Even animal groups have basic values and their actions reflect those values. My horse herd, as an example, values togetherness, shared resources, peace, low to no drama, and emotional stability. As a result, the tone and texture of the herd animates those qualities. Humans can gain quick and accurate information about their cultures by paying attention to how they behave rather than what they say or think about their culture. 

Leadership is Relationship

Keeping our definition of leadership simple allows more emphasis and focus on relationship. Leadership is defined as: how each individual leads her life, takes care of herself, and shows up in her interactions with others, regardless of rank or hierarchy. 

Awareness is a Superpower

In the animal world, awareness has a broader scope than it does for humans. Our awareness is self focused with an emphasis and/or obsession with thought and ego. Awareness in the rest of the animal kingdom consists of four layers of staying alert in the world. We refer to these four layers as Natural Leadership Awareness: care of one’s inner experiences and needs, empathic to the feelings and needs of others, attentive to interactions with others, and responsive to changes in the external environment and how those impact groups. No one member of an animal group can stay in awareness commitment without taking breaks. Owning awareness in a group is serious business and can be a matter of life or death. In human groups, we often allow the burden of relationship alertness to lie on one individual until he/she suffers from awareness fatigue. In animal groups, awareness commitment is passed like a cultural baton all day and all night, never dropped, and held in the highest regard.

Shared Leadership Builds Culture

Animal groups share leadership roles depending on what the group needs at any given moment. Each member’s temperament or innate gifts matter in the group and serve a function for the health of all. Animal groups, and human herds, have natural culture leaders, protectors or warriors, nurturers, jesters, resters, mobilizers, etc. Leadership of the group shifts as needs of the group change throughout the day or the season. Our human groups are typically constructed with a tactical mindset and we are missing attention to relational roles. It’s common to see human groups without a strong culture leader even though there is a named “leader” in terms of a hierarchy. We see this in corporate teams and classrooms all the time. Emotional and relational leaders help keep the group out of trouble and/or they know how to get a group through trouble when it does arise. Mammals do not get to live with an infinite sense of safety; however, we can settle and stabilize with a sense that our groups can face adversity together. 

Open Feedback Systems Grow Trust

Feedback is the system mammals use to teach each other how they want to be treated and how they want their cultures to operate. Humans use feedback but quite infrequently or we are so lost in thought and language,  we miss feedback cues coming our way. All other mammal groups use constant feedback in their groups to express needs, share resources, establish boundaries, and minimize energy spent on conflict. Efficiency in nature is a survival trait. Distractions from unnecessary upset or role confusion can create life or death situations. For humans, more frequent honest feedback can reduce stress, anxiety, isolation, loss of efficiency, operational chaos, and erosion of relationship. We have a lot to learn about open and honest feedback that builds trust. Surely, our annual performance reviews don’t allow us to negotiate the intricacies of relationship or to mature and develop as individuals. Feedback in the mammal world is all about learning and mentorship. 

Desire is the Source of Our Power

Our most genuine desire, which is an unedited and unfiltered energy in our mammal bodies, is the source of our greatest power. As soon as we begin to judge ourselves or modulate our desire, we cut off the flow of energy in our bodies. Genuine power is not about making others do things. And, It isn’t about compliance. Instead, influencing comes from an internal place so alive and vibrant that those around you deeply want to go along with your requests, to be part of your vision and to join or match the excited and inspired energy you are putting out into the world. We have to be willing to go out on a limb and allow others to see, hear, and feel what we are envisioning. Watch an inspired horse invite the herd to play and frolic and you’ll feel, in your bone marrow, what humans are missing out on. Power begins inside of us.

Energy Conservation is an Essential Need

All mammals are energy conservers. Our survival systems are hard-wired to a calories in/energy out formula that allows our engines to run and to have back up energy when needed. Mammals conserve energy and use it appropriately regardless of where they are in the food chain. Humans, especially women, run ourselves ragged, often over-extending in which we don’t need and then finding ourselves exhausted and with signs of physical or emotional stress. What is worse is that we watch each other over-use energy and we aren’t honest about what we see. The underlying commitment in a mammal group is to signal when energy conservation makes good sense and is a safe choice. 

Safety and Stability are Created Through Behavior

The bond created in a mammal group allows members to feel a part of a community. Packs and herds are families. They rely on each other for everything. Though dynamics may change and feedback may be used to adjust to the ever-changing needs of the group, there is an underlying sense of safety in the group which was created through ongoing behaviors that build trust and commitment. We put a group of humans together and call them a team but it doesn’t mean our human herds feel safe. In fact, because of the lack of open communication and feedback most of our groups are brittle and will snap when under more pressure than normal. So much of our human drama comes after months or years of underlying problems that have not been addressed. In order to create safety, we need more genuine connection with each other, more opportunities to see and know those in our group and to let them know us. Psychological safety, as evidenced in the most recent research, is the single most important factor in determining a highly effective human team. It really is that simple but it’s the last thing we create. 

Give yourself permission to keep these concepts as simple as they are. Often when we over complicate things, we are doing so because we are trying to prove our worthiness, flex our competency muscles, or because our human brains love to create complex thoughts and ideas. Instead, spend a little time getting to know yourself as a human animal, a fierce female mammal who knows a whole lot about how things feel in any given moment. We’re so used to suppressing that sensory system that it’s a bit numb. A lot of this work is about bringing your sensitivity back to the party so that your wise animal body can inform you. Pick one of these concepts that most resonates with you and play with it a bit in your work life or at home. Resist the urge to press snooze and go back to sleep. Our human culture, the people who care about us and those who we love, need us to be awake, aware, and alive. 

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