I heard a woman at a conference that I recently attended offer a view on leadership that I disagree with. The woman, who was the moderator for a panel on women and leadership, responded to a question that put forth a concern about the dynamism of the category woman and the simplification of its meaning in discussing the topic of leadership. Her central concern was this: Why can’t women, dynamically defined, have multiple notions of leadership? The moderator said in response that she held a very strong bias concerning how that question should be answered but would let others speak. Audience members asked the moderator to share her views and in doing so, she revealed a point of view that I reject. “Women,” she said, “don’t get to make up a new definition of what leadership means.” Even as I write this, I can’t quite believe what it says. Did I actually remember her words correctly? Why can’t women define leadership anew? 

Ella Baker. Image taken from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

I can’t remember the moderator’s argument against multiple notions of leadership but I’ll try to construct what I think would be her best defense. If you make terms mean what you want and there’s no system of meaning, how would communication occur? How would people understand you? To that point, who could you lead if you couldn’t communicate with people?

Even with clear terms, however, I find communication over the meaning of leadership difficult. For instance, I don’t always respond to the call to stand in awe of those in leadership positions. I don’t agree with the presumptions regarding the value, intellect, and overall worth of those who occupy such positions over those without recognized authority.

Ultimately, there was a strange, unexamined tension between those women on the panel who were calling for recognition of the challenges women face when pursuing leadership positions and those wanting to claim a single definition of the term. The former group was actually pointing to other constructions of leadership women held but instead of examining these constructions, they sought to remove barriers that prevented women from eventually using power in masculinist defined ways. At one point in the larger discussion of the issue, audience members were asked to come to the mic and provide their name and where they were from. I found this quite interesting because if someone neglected those details, someone would yell at them to provide them. I bet if someone said, “well, I don’t want to,” the audience would have been at a loss for how to respond because they had been engaged in bully behavior. Bullies expect compliance. Grace was neglected. Anyway, one woman identified herself and said that when she initially received her registration packet, she did not want to wear her name badge with the speaker flag because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. After listening to the panel, she confessed to being a shrinking violet and decided that “a man wouldn’t have a problem with people seeing him as an authority,” so she decided to wear her speaker badge. The audience roared with laughter and applause. “Since when did enacting masculinist practices become the goal of feminism?” I mused. Recognizing the ways that the practices and the performances associated with male behavior are overvalued constitutes  the substance of my critique, not the end game of my feminist engagement. In other words, I don’t want to act like a man and I don’t want men to either. I’m interested in adults being able to behave like adults and having that behavior accorded equal value.

To the moderator’s point, women cannot define leadership however they want if they expect to be recognized for commanding patriarchal authority. If women have an alternative idea for operationalizing the authority they want to wield, then of course you can define leadership anew.

I included a photograph of Ella Baker in this post because as I listened to those women discuss leadership, I thought about Baker and Septima Clark. Baker and Clark were both Civil Rights activists with a deep sense of commitment to the power and the capacity of everyday people to bring about change in their own lives. Evidence of Baker’s philosophy in practice occurred dramatically through the freedom rides; for Clark it was the Citizenship Schools.  The notion of a participatory democracy was meaningful for Baker and Clark. Ella Baker’s pronouncement that “strong people don’t need strong leaders” offers eloquent testimony to the possibility of having another model of leadership despite what the moderator of the panel on women in leadership thought.