Sensitive Startups: Women and the New Wave of Connective Leadership

What enables women to be so good at connecting across barriers? And withdubbing entrepreneurship "the new women's movement," what exactly is the link between connecting well and female entrepreneurship?
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Earlier this year, I found myself in Kabul, Afghanistan surrounded by women. Women cooked me breakfast and served me chai. Women washed my clothes and made my bed. Women brushed my hair, offered to do my makeup, sang to me in Pashto, and did anything and everything they could to make me smile.

Though I had come to Afghanistan as the CEO and founder of Klink Mobile to solidify partnerships with mostly male-run mobile operators, it was the women that enthralled me. I was staying at the home of a business partner, and over the course of my two-week stay, his mother, sisters, aunts and cousins became my constant companions. Since Afghan women are often discouraged from going out of the house without a male chaperone, a situation that has only been worsened by the violence in Afghanistan, these women set out to make the most of the culture-shocked, jet-lagged, all-American piece of the outside world that had suddenly shown up in their home.

Since they didn't speak English, and I didn't speak Pashto, miscommunications did occasionally arise. For example, they were so curious about the western way of life that they followed me everywhere I went around the house -- even, and I had to draw the line here, into the bathroom. But as I got to know them better, I realized that these women might be physically isolated, but they were excellent at connecting with others. Even with a language barrier and a cultural divide, I left Afghanistan feeling like those women could have been my mother, my sisters, my aunts, my cousins. And it made me wonder, what is it that enables women to be so good at connecting across barriers? Perhaps more importantly, with Forbes dubbing entrepreneurship "the new women's movement," what exactly is the link between connecting well and female entrepreneurship?

Women and Connective Leadership:

A term called "connective leadership" has long been associated with female entrepreneurs. As Claremont Graduate University Professor of Public Policy and Organizational Behavior Jean Lipman-Blumen argues, connective leadership "reaches out beyond its own traditional constituencies to presumed adversaries, using mutual goals, rather than mutual enemies, to create group cohesion and community leadership." If the traditional form of leadership is about competition and exclusion and has historically been embodied by men, connective leadership is about cooperation and inclusion and has, more recently, been associated with women.

Importantly, since we all know better than to think that there can be any pat correlation between sex and behavior (thank you, SWAG 101), I should point out that connective leadership has nothing to do with the female mind or the female body. If women lead differently than most men, it is not because of their inherent womanliness but because they have been socialized to be community-oriented due to their conventional roles in family structures. Not all female entrepreneurs demonstrate connective leadership, and many male entrepreneurs do. That said, I do think that my tendency towards a connective leadership style -- a style that is more about making friends than enemies, more about negotiation than commandments -- is part of what enabled me to make successful partnerships with Afghan mobile operators when many of my competitors have not. Not knowing what to expect in Afghanistan, my tendency towards connective leadership enabled me to adapt my goals so that I could meet the Afghan mobile operators halfway and end up with a partnership that was beneficial for all.

Connectivity and the Coming Prosperity:

In his new book The Coming Prosperity, my friend Philip Auerswald writes about the value of entrepreneurs for an economy still grounded in the centralized technological infrastructure and big, slow-moving business models that dominated the western world during the 20th century. According to Phil, the value of the 21st century entrepreneur is his or her ability to use small-scale, individually owned, network-based technologies (like the smart phone) to connect quickly to new markets and adapt rapidly to solve new problems. This technologically-enhanced sensitivity seems, to me, to be a sort of techno-material metaphor for the kind of communal responsiveness, collective caring, and connective leadership that women have long been "socialized" to embody.

What concerns me is that the shifting, de-centralized and network-based nature of 21st century business seems to require connective leadership in order to reach its full potential, but many women are still being urged to adopt more conventionally "masculine" leadership styles in order to be successful. I, for one, feel the pressure to conform to more traditional and more conventionally masculine leadership styles daily. But as markets becoming increasingly global, it seems more important to me now than ever before to make sure that the culture of business learns to embrace a diversity of leadership styles instead of continuing to squeeze individuals into a stale image of what leadership should be.

When I think back to my time in Afghanistan and the women who helped me there, I am reminded of how important it is to reach out across boundaries and work through conflict to connect with new kinds of people, information and value. I am pleased to see programs like Project Artemis and the 10,000 Women Initiative helping women from emerging nations gain the business skills they need to become successful entrepreneurs while contributing to the transformation of a sometimes stagnant model of what a good business leader should look like. As women from emerging nations start businesses in increasing numbers, connective leadership is on the rise, but so are other new models of leadership that grow out of the differences between geographic regions, cultures and social systems. A new wave of leadership styles will enable new businesses to develop that solve problems in ways that we have yet to imagine. But these businesses can only grow to reach their full potential if all of us strive not only to be sensitive to difference but also willing to connect with it.