leadership

Taking Off Our Glasses: A Leadership Lesson

I’ve worn glasses for a long time. I think I got my first pair when I was three, or at the latest, five. I’ve worn them for so long that I often forget I’m wearing them.

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I suffered from depression for six years. Everything felt so dark and hopeless, like wearing a pair of sunglasses that could never come off. I couldn’t imagine that life could look any differently.

I think how we see and engage in leadership is not so different from these experiences. We become saturated in a single perspective and we cannot imagine it could look another way. We do not even realize we are wearing glasses. So, we continue thinking and operating with a narrow, anemic perspective, believing that’s all there is. Maybe we find mentors, read books, go to conferences, or take courses. Seemingly we are engaging in good things and becoming better leaders. But all of these things are the same colour as our glasses so that we are never challenged. If something different does manage to break in, the threat of the anomaly is quickly quenched. To reference Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a popular Nigerian author and speaker, there is great danger to a single story.

Most of what I have seen, read, and experienced regarding leadership is from a white, Western, male perspective. This is not a bad nor a wrong perspective, but if it becomes my only set of glasses, then it is incomplete. Some time ago I came across Next Leadership. It’s a UK-based organization founded by Kate Coleman. Not only is she a woman, but she was also born in Ghana, and has been a pioneer for women in leadership in a number of areas. Her book ‘the 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership’ was the first book I ever read on leadership by a woman. For the first time in my life, I saw a different perspective on leadership, and discovered well articulated, unique challenges for women in leadership.

A number of months ago, I found another book on sale: ‘Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women’ by Dr. Halee Gray Scott. This was my second book on leadership by a woman. Both Coleman and Scott recognize that from the outset, many women are disqualified for leadership based on their gender, especially as it relates to specific theologies among Christians. However, they write presuming (and presuming correctly) that women do have leadership gifts and are already leading in all kinds of arenas. Through these books, I began to see more of my glasses.

One particular aspect stuck out to me from Scott’s book. In her studies, she focused her thesis on perceptions of female leaders serving in para-church ministries. She discovered one of the unique challenges for women in para-church leadership (and likely in Christian leadership in general), was the discrepancy between how good women were perceived compared to how good leaders were perceived.

When women display the desirable leadership traits – confident, competent, assertive, and bold – they cease to be viewed as warm and caring and are instead perceived as tough, aggressive, and domineering. This creates a double bind, because if women act in ways consistent with gender stereotypes, they are not viewed as competent leaders, but if they act in ways consistent with good leaders, they are not liked. In political circles, these women are called ‘iron ladies’. (p.107)

Scott adds, “since perceptions of female leaders strongly correlate with perceptions of successful leaders, but greatly contrast with perceptions of women in general, it means that Christians view female leaders as exceptions to the rule” (p.115). From my own experience, her research results ring true. I’ve had to decide that I will use my gifts and pursue my calling regardless of how favourably people view me, as a woman or as a leader. More women than I can count have told me they could not do what I do. This could be true, since we are all given different gifts and abilities (1 Cor. 12). However, even those that could lead likely believe it is not possible. Scott concludes, “whether we like it or not, we do not think a woman can be both a good woman and a good leader” (p.107). We lose out on capable leaders because many women consider this price too high to pay, and choose instead to act in ways that will gain them social acceptability as a woman.

How can we move forward? The first step is to realize the danger of a single story about leadership, and have the courage to seek out other perspectives. Imagine you actually are wearing a pair of glasses, and that leadership can look differently than you may have believed until now. With your new and evolving viewpoint, challenge others to see beyond what’s right in front of them. Use whatever privilege you have to encourage people, especially women, to pursue leadership in ways that are unique to them. Whatever you do, refuse to let a single story dominate the leadership landscape.

Reflecting on Leadership

Are you a reflective sort of person? Do you ever find yourself getting lost in thought? Or maybe not find yourself, just get lost? I know I do.

So, I thought, why not make something of all that reflection? I’ve had a lot of fun working together with the lovely folks at the Sophia Network in the UK to create a ‘Reflective Leadership Corner’. It’s a bi-monthly installment where I write short (400ish) word reflections on various aspects of leadership. Things that I’ve been thinking about and wrestling with recently. It’s real. It’s short. It’s practical. Why not check it out? http://blog.sophianetwork.org.uk/2016/06/re.html

Enjoy. Oh, grab some tea first, okay? 🙂

When you cannot see: The Power of Representation

“Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it, and I went screaming through the house, “Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.” – Whoopi Goldberg

The power of representation cannot be overstated. It is very difficult to be like or aspire to become someone that you have never heard about or even seen. What we see forms our reality. Although there will always be pioneers, it is a lot easier when you have an example to follow. Someone who has shown you what is possible. Here Ms. Goldberg talks about representation primarily in terms of race, but we can also think of it in terms of gender, religion, culture, personality, body type, and much more.

I am a Christian and have spent a lot of time in churches and other Christian circles. I have noticed that when we look to develop leaders, we take male examples of leadership in the Bible almost exclusively. I realize that female examples do not occur as often or in as much detail, but they are there. And what is there is powerful. Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla and many more stand out as models of what it means to lead in difficult situations, and often in a male dominated, patriarchal world. I have been wondering: Do we miss them because we are trained and otherwise socialized to view leadership only through a male lense? One that traditionally prizes aggression, direct communication, and individuality? Have we worn male glasses for so long that we cannot recognize their gifts and actions as leadership? Or does our theology barricade them as anomalies that God had to use because the right man was not available?

I suppose there could be many reasons. But the consequence of this lack of representation means that we are indirectly, and in some cases directly, inhibiting many, both men and women, boys and girls, from having a real understanding of leadership as something that both genders share and have capacity for. How can women exclaim, as Ms. Goldberg did, that they realize they can be anything they want to be if they never see an example? Instead of drawing on the full realm of possibilities in terms of leadership examples in the Bible, we rely on an anaemic sample that paints a black and white picture of what is, in reality, a rainbow of colour.

Women, in many cases, make up more than half of the population in the church and in Christian organizations today. Let’s take advantage of gender diversity in leadership by challenging these traditions and evaluating our leadership examples and role models. Let’s enable the Whoopi Goldbergs in our circles to scream through all the house, “There’s women in leadership and they ain’t no token!” Let’s allow them to dream and become anything they want to be. Let’s paint a bright, new future.

How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership

I remember sitting across from my mentor and her telling me that she was thinking about becoming a vicar. I looked at her with a puzzled face and said, “But, doesn’t the Bible say that women can’t be pastors?” She replied, “Tami, I’ve read the same Bible and I don’t see it that way.” I was confused: how could two people read the Bible and come to such different conclusions on the same issue?

I’d grown up in a church where women in leadership wasn’t really discussed, but all I ever saw were men up on the stage. Sometimes a woman would sing a solo or do a children’s story, but that’s about it. Men led and men made the decisions. My mentor had me thinking, though, could women be in church leadership without going against Scripture?

I couldn’t get it out of my head, and so, when I went to a Christian university soon afterward, I decided to take a course on the topic to learn more. I’m not someone who is easily convinced, so I entered the class, taught jointly by a female and a male professor, as a sceptic.

I learned a lot about gender, stereotypes, the background of feminism, and how history and culture have influenced peoples’ beliefs around what it means to be female or male. I even saw how society could play a part in shaping how one reads and understands the Bible. All of this was important for me to learn, but it was studying how Jesus interacted with women that tipped the scales for me. Jesus affirmed women as his disciples (Lk. 10:39), reinterpreted laws to protect them (Mt. 5:27-28), and even compared himself to them (Mt. 23:37-39). When women were not allowed as legal witnesses in court, Jesus chose them as the first preachers of his resurrection (Jn. 20:11-18). Jesus intentionally turned cultural and religious ideals upside-down to free women from bondage. Jesus saw women as equal to, not less than, men.

As I learned in the course, studied the Bible for myself, and prayed, my eyes were opened. Scripture didn’t prohibit women from church leadership; it encouraged it! Leadership and ministry were never supposed to be about gender – they were supposed to be about giftedness.

Where is my mentor now? She became a vicar in an Anglican church in England. And me? I think she’s well gifted for the position and I support her 100%.

I firmly believe that equality of the sexes is one more step towards the actualization of the Kingdom of God. We see glimpses of it in Jesus and throughout Scripture, and we can be a part of bringing it in now by how we live out the reality of gender equality in the church, in our homes, in society, and wherever we are. Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

The title for this blog post came from a book I read recently by the same name. I highly recommend it. Check it out on Amazon here.

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