Desperately Seeking Gloria

"Leaders of all stripes are hard to come by lately," writes Sarah Hepola in her New York Sunday Times 3/18/12 piece, "A Woman like No Other." The woman Hepola is featuring is Gloria Steinem and her role as leader of the feminist movement. Who is going to take her place? she asks. Why hasn't someone arisen by now? What does this say about the movement? she implies.

Wrong questions. Let's look at the assumptions. The media love the hero story, stars are sexy, always have been. This "Lone Ranger" style of leadership, with its emphasis on the all-conquering, all-powerful individual, is a masculine-infused model that has dominated corporate cultures for decades, and still does. The media imposed this model on the articulate and attractive Gloria, dubbing her as spokesperson for the movement despite her protests otherwise, that the movement had many leaders. Women's power is not a singular power but a collective power, she insisted, where leadership is distributed and everyone has an opportunity to be a leader.

This media blindness to another kind of leadership reminds of a story former Prime Minister of Canada, Kim Campbell, told me. When she was minister of Justice she had the task of getting a gun control bill passed through Parliament. She worked hard behind the scenes, engaging people in lots of consultation, inviting people to talk to people they usually didn't talk to, negotiating the dissent. When the bill passed by a large margin, Kim Campbell expected to hear praise for delivering on her pledge. Instead she saw a bewildered media who scratched their heads and wondered how Campbell could get such a contentious bill passed. She must have been watered it down, they snidely suggested. She had done no such thing. Instead she had adopted a different, collaborative, inclusive style of leadership, and a very successful one. The media, with their traditional assumptions about what "real leadership" looked like, just couldn't see Campbell's different way. It was completely invisible to them.

A seismic change has been going on in what makes corporations successful, in what successful leadership demands. Gone is the traditional command and control, mechanistic approach, where one individual really could steer the corporate to chosen destinations. It worked well once, but no longer. In today's fast-moving, always connected world, individual leaders have much less control, and corporate success rests increasingly on interlacing networks and distributed leadership and creativity. Today's world--and future worlds--look like Google and Facebook, whose org charts look much more like fluid webs than stacked hierarchies. And yet the media still look for heroes, lauding Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg as if the ultimate success of their protean, organic enterprises was theirs alone. They forget the power of distributed leadership and creativity, and let's not forget luck. But the hero model is simpler, and easy to make into headlines.

As long as the media keeps looking for the hero to come to the rescue, to triumph in the face of Olympian challenges, they are going to miss a profound event underway, where collaboration is the source of great futures. This is the world of today's women, where many women stand together as one, and where every woman is a leader in shaping justice for all. It is a world where Palestinian and Israeli women's organizations are working together to build peace, rather than posturing in sclerotic positions of antagonism.

There is such a plethora of similar women's organizations across the globe, working to close challenging chasms, reflecting the kaleidoscope of diverse interests that can be defined under the umbrella of feminist leadership. Momentum is building as women come to realize their collective power, but we have a ways to go. Feminist leadership will not manifest in one woman, but in a collective force and voice that will change the world.

Matthew Arnold, the nineteenth century British poet and cultural critic said the following: "If ever the world sees a time when women shall come together purely for the good of humanity, it will be a power such as the world has never seen."

Wonder what that headline will look like?