Lessons: Situating “Self”

Voices From The Margins Aspiring to Leadership

Before reading further, take a moment and consider: how do you define “leadership”? When you think of this word, who comes to mind? What qualities does a leader have? What have they accomplished as a leader? How does your example of a leader align with your definition of leadership? Are there elements to add to your definition? Take a few notes and share them in the form below, we’ll return to these later.

Leadership is a nebulous concept, a word that is often used but less often defined.  Definitions may focus on an individual’s characteristics (charismatic, strong, inspiring), an individual’s actions (organized, strategic, decisive), or an individual’s achievements (won an election, implemented a policy, head of an organization).  In an analysis of definitions of leadership, the feminist scholar-activist Shrilatha Batliwala, identified key components of leadership definitions and proposed a composite definition of leadership as:

“a set of actions and processes, performed by individuals of character, knowledge, and integrity, who have the capacity to create a vision for change, inspire and motivate others to share that vision, develop ideas, and strategies that direct and enable others to work towards that change, and make critical decisions that ensure the achievement of the goal.”

Shrilatha Batliwala (pg. 18, 2011)

As she notes, key gaps in traditional definitions of “leadership” include consideration of the context in which the leadership is taking place, the power structures inherent in that structure, and the focus on the individual leader.  Unfortunately, most leadership training focuses on teaching individuals the skills and behaviours of leadership, but not how to address questions of inequality and power within and outside the organization (Watson, 2019).

This traditional definition of leadership can be contrasted with transformational leadership where leaders are defined as agents for change that can transcend their own interests by raising awareness and inspiring others to broader social values (Lazzari et al., 2009). In turn, transformational leadership has led to the emergence of shared leadership theories that are defined by Lazzari et al., 2009 as:

“… a practice of leadership that empowers through decentralized decision making, distributed and interdependent power, and responsibility through group processes and relational practice. Shared leadership involves democratized decision making and a team approach with fluid processes of give-and-take and the exchange or rotation of roles to increase involvement and input into all areas of the organization, institution, or community.”

Collins & Lazzari, 2009; Pearce & Conger, 2003

With this definition of leadership, we arrive at a conceptualization that addresses the key gaps identified above; in particular, leadership is contextualized, power relations are explicitly addressed, and the definition focuses on the team rather than a sole focus on the leader.

Within transformational leadership, we can situate feminist leadership.  Clover and her colleagues (2017) refer to a definition of feminist proposed by the feminist scholar bell hooks to motivate why a feminist lens is relevant to all. Specifically, bell hooks proposes that the goal of feminism is to realize a future where “fully self-actualized females and males [are] able to create beloved community together, realizing our dreams of freedom and justice” (hooks, 2000; cited in Clover et al., 2017 pg 25). A post-structural feminist theory called “intersectionality theory” (Collins 2000), focuses on all people who experience oppression and aims to understand the power relations and dynamics experienced by individuals within their broader society, their community, and their private spaces (Watson, 2019). This lens aligns with the UN – Sustainable Development Goal 5: to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

In a review of grassroots organizations from around the world, Batliwala developed a composite definition of transformative feminist leadership as an approach that will “use the analysis of gender and social discrimination in a particular society, community, or setting as its starting point, and will attempt to transform the structures or institutions it engages towards a more gender and socially equitable architecture in both formal and informal terms. (Batliwala, pg. 18, 2011)”.  For Lazzari and her colleagues (2009), a feminist theory of leadership should closely attend to all levels of power and influence (formal and informal), sex and gendered differences and expectations, and the process of leadership.  They emphasize that the practice of feminist leadership involves “reconstructing power as empowerment, for example, making decisions with others, sharing control of resources and educational curricula, and generating ideas or ideologies and knowledge” (Lazzari et al., 2009).  Here again, we see the recurrence of central values that are articulated in shared leadership as presented above.