When the L Word meets the F Word: what love has to do with feminist leadership

It’s a heady mix: LOVE + FEMINISM + LEADERSHIP. Big concepts individually. Bring them together and we just might have something magical.

As we begin, please note: this is a conversation, not a monologue, I want to hear from you. I have learned some stuff, sure, but what we need now is a sharing of what we’re collectively learning. Let’s take this moment in time, when the buzz-phrase of ‘feminist leadership’ is doing the rounds, to embed some of the principles that the feminist leaders who were here before us have been pushing for decades. See this as an invitation to a conversation — leave comments, find me on twitter (@leepster), let’s chew this over and push ourselves forward. It’s time.

A bit about me. I’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager: three decades with feminism as my moral compass, my window on the world and my political analysis. I’ve been a ‘leader’ in the conventional, organisational sense, for much less time — about a decade of line-managing, and working in organisational leadership teams, mainly in the UK international development sector. I’ve been lucky (and indeed purposeful, if I give myself credit for that), to have spent the majority of my career working on gender equality and women’s rights. I’ve worked with incredible feminist leaders from around the world, in partnership on programmes and advocacy to advance gender equality, from local communities to the global community. They’ve given me love, and time, and insight, and held me to account.

A few weeks ago I spoke to a group of young women, starting their own leadership journeys. Their questions, their frustration with the status quo, and their hunger for change, re-fanned the flames of my passion for doing feminist leadership well, for sharing what I’ve learned, and putting it out there. Thanks to those younger sisters for inspiring this.

So, for me, right now, feminist leadership is all about the L Word. Bringing love to leadership, in an open-hearted, deliberate and feminist way. Cheesy? Yep. Are you cringing already? Hang up your cynicism my friends, and read on anyway, what have you got to lose? Here are three ways — of many — that love might show up in our work. What are the ways it shows up, or could show up with more bounty, in yours?

Starting from a place of love

Love for women and girls, and a fundamental belief in the inherent worth of all human beings, as equals, is at the heart of feminism. And it can be at the heart of feminist leadership — use love as your touch stone. Ask yourself: am I responding to this annoying email (yep, you know the email I mean) from a place of love? Am I ensuring that every person in this team has been lovingly given the space to contribute fully (whether I lead that team or not, how am I showing up to support my colleagues)? Can everyone come to work here knowing that they will be shown love and respect, and can ‘bring their whole selves’, with all the messiness that may entail?

An obvious starting point of feminist leadership is recruitment. Doing feminist work needs feminists. And recruitment is one of the best ways you can prioritise your precious time as a leader. If you’re going to get particular, get particular about recruitment. Put time into making sure the job description and job ad are speaking to feminists in all their diversities. Cast a feminist eye on the shortlisting — and make sure those who may not have first class degrees from fancy universities, but may have been grafting for years in their community to end violence against women, have the chance to show you how their skills are transferable and what they might bring. Get precise on the interview questions, yes you want to know how feminism will show up in their work. Set up interviews to be welcoming and two way conversations, where folks feel they can give their best (and yes this means no all-white panels, it means offering ways that interviewing is accessible to a wide range of folk). To white women leaders (I am one, and I’m looking at you sister, you who looks a bit like me..), let’s not entrench whiteness in the leadership of our organisations, let’s listen to and be led by the ground-breaking work of women of colour (see for instance the excellent statement from the Women of Colour Forum and this blog from women of colour in the development sector), and seek to redress historic discrimination. It’s not easy work, don’t expect thanks or to feel comfortable, but just do it, there are resources aplenty to give you a steer.

Love-bombing (or giving encouragement and recognition in a feminist way)

We all work better knowing our efforts are recognised and understood. And there’s so much scope to bring some love and affirmation to feedback!

I’m renowned in my team for love bombs — which include giving recognition of great work, calling out excellent behaviour and highlighting solidarity and supportive actions when I see them. Don’t wait until the end of a huge piece of work to recognise achievements — remind people in the middle, at the hardest times, when they need to dig deeper, that we started this work because we love women and girls, and we want to make the world a better, and safer, place. That this work matters, not because of the deadline, not because of the budget ceiling or the overhead charges we may recoup, but because of the women and girls whose lives will be better when we mobilise resources and our feminist partners deliver this programme.

Likewise, accepting affirmation when it’s given is a feminist act. Two women I work with reminded me that when I deflect or reject their compliments, I’m not owning my own feminist leadership or demonstrating confidence and self-belief (thank you for this feedback, I’m still working on it!).

Not all the conversations are easy, obviously, and there will be times when we need to have more difficult conversations, and these too can start from a place of love and respect.

Paying it forward (with love, obviously)

Leadership happens in all areas of organisations, and at all places in whatever hierarchy you work in. When working in a traditional structure of ‘managers’ and ‘organisational leaders’ there is so much we can do to share power, be transparent, and offer opportunities for growth and development to others.

Responsible, transparent and transformative use of the power you have as a leader can create beautiful things. For instance: do you really need to chair that meeting, or would someone else like that opportunity to take that on? Can you enable and empower colleagues to make decisions based on their expertise, and devolve decision-making to the folks closest to the work? Can you ask, open-hearted, how you can do better? Can you co-create inclusive and empowering meetings — and in the rollercoaster of remote pandemic working, how can you collaborate and make sure meetings are meeting the need of the widest range of colleagues. I can assure you from personal experience, that when you need that 99th online icebreaker activity, there’s someone in your team that has a better one than you. And there’s someone who has thought about how to turn icebreakers, and online meetings, upside down in feminist and creative ways. So, crowdsource, co-create, co-deliver, co-own. Sometimes stepping back is stepping up.

And let’s be humble about this, just because you’ve spent a few years learning some stuff, and stretching your leadership wings, you’ve still got loads to learn. So it’s not only paying it forward, like some benevolent feminist fairy godmother. It’s also about dialogue, listening and learning from young women, who are embarking on their own leadership journeys, are impatient for change, and bringing new and fresh perspectives. Personally, I’m all ears!

So, are you feeling the love?

Leadership, how you show up at work and in your personal projects, comes in many shapes and sizes, and is a deeply personal journey for most of us. If you’re a ‘heart on your sleeve’ type of person, you might have made it this far into this post. I want to hear how it’s landing for you, tell me what’s resonating, what’s working for you, and let’s move forwards together — with love, of course!

Feminist, work on global women's rights. Attempts in feminist parenting & balcony gardening, both with mixed results. From Shirebrook, usually in Croydon (UK).

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