by Nina Simons
Imagine if leadership were something we each understood as a way to bring our unique gifts and talents fully forward to help make the world a better place? What if we understood it as an ongoing practice of self-cultivation, rather than an end-goal, with as many diverse forms and expressions as there are people?
What if we recognized that the more consciously we bring all of the aspects of ourselves into alignment with serving what we most love, the more effective and fulfilling our lives will be? I invite you to explore how profoundly we can develop ourselves, and each other, by turning our relational intelligence toward healing our relationship with our selves, each other and our mother, the Earth.
Sixteen years ago, when I turned 40, I began receiving awards and acknowledgements for my leadership in the fields of sustainability and mission-driven communications. At that time, I had a very conflicted response to being named a leader. I knew that I should feel appreciated and honored, but instead I found that I felt anxious and confused. As I shared my experience with friends and colleagues, I was startled to find that that many among them also felt similarly conflicted. I was startled because I knew how essential it is to ignite and inspire leadership widely among us in order to shift the direction of our societies and cultures toward a life-honoring future. From that point forward I began a 16-year inquiry into the nature – and redefinition – of leadership, an inquiry that has shaped my life every since.
During my professional career I have explored many disciplines, paths and sectors. I worked in the arts, became a deeply committed social entrepreneur, helped to create a start-up company called Seeds of Change and was strategic marketing director for the fresh juice company Odwalla as it expanded across the nation. In addition, two decades ago I co-founded the nonprofit Bioneers, which features leaders from every walk of life whose visionary and practical solutions reveal a future landscape of health, sustainability and justice that’s within our reach today.
This inquiry into the nature of leadership was motivated by an internal imbalance and an external incongruity that I observed within myself. I realized that during all of my professional life I had led from my masculine side. Emphasizing those aspects of myself had been necessary, I believed, in order to succeed in a business environment. I began to look at what the concepts masculine and feminine meant to me and what characteristics, traits and parts of myself I might relate to each of these gendered concepts. I vowed that going forward I would live more from my feminine side, because I believe that having access to the full spectrum of my human capacities allows me to show up in the world in a more authentic, integrated and effective way.
This inquiry began with “unpacking” my own, internal definition of leadership. I wondered about the various aspects of gender with respect to leadership and about whether unconsciously adopted stories, cultural inheritance or societal definitions might be responsible for the discomfort I was feeling about the concept of leadership.
I noticed that outer attention was much more highly valued in society than inner awareness or personal practice. I saw how left-brain analytical and procedural thinking were typically more highly valued than right brain, relational and innovative thinking. I observed how consistently we value intellect over our emotional, embodied and intuitive ways of knowing. I began to see that the imbalance that was true within me was also present within other people and in our institutions and social structures as well. I realized that our societal inheritance was that of a culture based around competition, hierarchy and scarcity. Within that context, leadership tends to imply a winner-take-all, zero-sum game. This culturally inherited definition of leadership, I found, exists within the very narrow band of an elitist and inherently biased monoculture.
Exploring this leadership legacy, I saw that I associated leadership with characteristics such as independence, self-sacrifice, single-focused work ethic (with no possibility of a balanced life), aggression, toughness, assertion, power, charisma, arrogance and willfulness. I saw it as often motivated by a desire for status, wealth or recognition. When I thought of leaders, I thought of people who were driven, isolated, stoical and aggressive. Who among us wants to be like that?
Because we are all products of a similar culture, and inspired leadership now seems essential to navigating this changing time and relationship with our home, the Earth, I felt it was important to explore other models of leadership that we might all aspire to. I am inspired by collaborative and inclusive forms of leadership that work towards a future that is regenerative, just and healthy in whole-hearted and purposeful ways.
To find examples of this kind of leadership, I looked to the diverse array of leaders from the Bioneers networks who we have been identifying and featuring for the past 23 years, all from different disciplines, backgrounds and walks of life, and at different stages in their leadership or life journeys. I found that almost across the board these leaders are: creative, cooperative, curious, courageous, humble, reflective and passionate. They find joy in their work and are adventurous risk-takers who are deeply respectful of their colleagues, readily acknowledge what they don’t know, and respond creatively to challenges they encounter.
Looking at these new models of leadership led me to create the Cultivating Women’s Leadership (CWL) intensives that I have been co-facilitating for the past seven years and to co-edit the book, Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heart. Co-facilitating the CWL intensives has led me to understand more deeply the diversity of ways in which people learn, grow and transform.
My work has inspired me to more deeply appreciate diversity in all of its forms. I know from my many years with Bioneers, and before that with Seeds of Change, that diversity is about far more than political correctness—it is essential to the resilience and adaptability of any thriving organism or community. I now believe that bringing the full capacity of myself¾my own internal diversity¾to my leadership might actually be among the most effective responses to cultivating my leadership capacity at this pivotal moment in time.
In nature, diversity means having a multitude of options for adaptation in order to ensure survival and to mitigate against extinction. Eco-systems that are rich in diversity rebound much more quickly after trauma; systems that have less diversity are much slower to heal. And, because human systems are a subset of nature’s systems, if diversity is useful to nature for survival, it is useful for us, too. If diversity enhances resilience in nature it can do the same for us.
I now look at leadership through the lens of diversity. I believe what is called for in this time of immense and complex ecological and social challenges is an uprising of leadership in each of us – across all sectors, disciplines, races and ages – that is strengthened by the full capacity of our diversity, both inwardly and outwardly.
We are not the first to attempt to achieve this gender and inner balance; many indigenous cultures come from matriarchal roots. A matriarchal culture is not one in which women are dominant, but rather one in which both masculine and feminine are valued because they combine in partnership to create a strong, functional society.
Even astronomy points to this kind of balance. Did you know that Earth is the only planet in our solar system in which both the sun and the moon appear to be the same size and look visibly equal in our sky? Earth is the only planet from which an eclipse is even possible. I don’t know about you, but this seems like instructions to me.
It is because of my remarkable opportunities and personal inquiry that I have become deeply focused on the practice of cultivating what I call Full Spectrum Leadership. Now, when our ecological systems are in serious and accelerating decline, our social, political and cultural challenges demand greater leadership stands from us all. This kind of leadership may also provide our lives with greater meaning and fulfillment. What I suggest, in a nutshell, is this: find what you most love and value, connect it with a real need for reinvention in the world and act from—or serve—that.
I hope you will join me in this journey toward Full Spectrum Leadership. To do so, I suggest that you first give yourself permission to fall in love. Fall deeply in love with a place, with a people, with kids, a cause, an organization, a creature or habitat, anything that really lights you up. Then give yourself to it through purposeful action. I suggest bringing yourself to it with all the intelligence residing in your body, the wisdom of your heart, your intellect, your spirit and your intuition. Call on all of your aspects, from your discipline and rigor to your compassion and empathy, from your left-brain to your right brain, from your masculine to your feminine, and everything in between. Bring all of you.
And lastly, I invite you to trust that exactly who you are is what is needed and relevant at this moment in the world¾that none of us is here by accident. And, here’s the best part: I suggest you do this not because it’s right (though it is), and not because it’s needed (though it surely is that), but because it is the most joyful, purposeful and fulfilling way to live your one wild and precious life.
Nina Simons is a joyful facilitator, storyteller and co-founder of Bioneers. Her varied background integrates systems thinking, social entrepreneurship, women’s leadership and indigenous spiritual traditions. bioneers.org