As you have engaged in this work, what skills have you used?
By Danielle Prince
The Women’s Leadership Project takes a snapshot of women around the world to look at what they are already doing to forge a path towards leadership. This question provided an opportunity for the Country Conveners to engage their groups in drawing out and naming the skills the women have and have used. One universal theme that has already emerged is the tendency for women to discount or dismiss innate skills and competencies. Women are often too humble in owning the skills they have, and in most cultures around the world, the leadership skills and competencies that come naturally to women are not recognized.
From the United States to Ethiopia, and from Guatemala to Vietnam, the women participating in this unique Project have had to remind themselves of their power, their presence, and hold high a mirror to reflect the reality that not only can they lead, but that they are already leading. This Project is all about learning, and the women’s responses to Question Two demonstrate that learning happens at every step of the way for every individual. Their responses also demonstrate a clear sense that women are intent on using skill sets to benefit themselves, their families and their communities. The nature of women’s leadership is inclusive and lifts everyone higher; indeed, 92% of the responses in this question align with this premise.
A theme that clearly emerged from all nine Conversations is an emphasis on clear, frequent and transparent communication: communication within families, with communities and with oneself. Communication is foundational for all relationships and women typically take a relational approach to each other and to the world around them. Communication is the medium through which other skills operate, such as sharing life experiences, mentoring or teaching others, listening and working together. Behind the skill of communication is a value of inclusivity. The women resonate a deep sense of partnership and prefer to move forward in unison, where a collective voice is amplified toward issues they care about. There is also recognition that being in clear communication with oneself is the basis for self-confidence and a belief in oneself, two skills named frequently by the women.
The theme of participation was mentioned as often as communication, but in fewer countries. Participation as a skill was specifically described around stimulating youth engagement, engaging other women, and having opportunities to participate in community projects. That these two leadership qualities – communication and participation – showed up most often is not surprising given the direct link between them. In order to participate one first needs to communicate. Likewise, participation is the foundation for communication, both of which are needed for the active pursuit of working together, connecting, and creating relationship. Unmistakably, communication and participation are key skills in women’s leadership.
Another common thread emerging from the collective answers was the use of the words “family” and “self.” These words occurred in equal numbers, which exemplifies the groups’ collective statement that women must constantly balance the well-being of their families with their own well-being. Even in countries that place more emphasis on the group rather than the individual, this distinction arose in the expression of the women’s belief in self and self-confidence. Even though the words were mentioned regularly and equally, many of the women reported struggling to maintain a strong sense of self while balancing their respective families’ or communities’ expectations.
Patterns that emerged across the nine Conversations and countries highlight skills used to care for the people and the environment in each group’s community. All the skills listed are affirming: family-, group-, and community-oriented, with none of the women reflecting a competitive nature or a need to get ahead in a way that leaves anyone else behind. There is clearly a collective desire to work on oneself, continue learning, continue giving, but from a standpoint that equally benefits the individual, her family and her community.
One of the most noticeable patterns to emerge is the focus on personal values and behaviors as a leadership skill. The values of positive thinking, energy and optimism are qualities shared in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Uganda, Vietnam and Muckleshoot. Each of these countries holds historical trauma in the forms of colonialism, imperial oppression, war, and stark experiences of violence against women. From the backdrop of such enduring hardship, placing an emphasis on positive thinking and optimism is a deliberate way to move beyond the pain and suffering that is still so close, so palatable, and so lived. This is active coping, turning victimhood on its head by choosing survivorship and the “hero’s journey” (Storytech, n.d.).
Other values of being truthful, building trust, being honest and faithful to each other in relationships emerges in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Vietnam and Muckleshoot. Trust and faithfulness are necessary components to strong communication and relationships. They also keep one’s own integrity aligned with one’s self. The way these women describe truth and trust are like spokes that emerge from the hub of self and connect directly with family and community; the stronger the spokes, the stronger will be each component of self, family and community.
Soft Leadership Skills
Many skills fit under an umbrella we will call “soft” leadership skills. These include the skills of compassion, emotional intelligence (briefly defined as being able to perceive, understand and successfully manage one’s emotions), and believing everyone has talents and strengths. These skills were named in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, and Muckleshoot, and in countries where they were not directly named, this skill set was still given importance. For example, in Uganda the women listed “peer support and interaction” and “solidarity.” Those specific skills imply compassion, emotional intelligence and the belief that everyone has a role to play in their community. Compassion and emotional intelligence are natural competencies women, and many men, typically possess the world over. Women tend to be care-takers, nurturers, healers and community-builders fueled by compassion and a deep knowing of how to heal pain, right wrongs and celebrate life.
Patience and listening were named as important skills in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Uganda. These skills are also critical to building and maintaining strong families and communities. Listening is often an under-valued skill as, at first glance, it appears to be passive. But listening is one of the most powerful tools in leadership. It gives the speaker the gift of attention and understanding. It births the process of helping, healing, hearing, finding harmony, pursuing plans and demonstrating compassion and caring. To truly listen, one needs patience.
The naming of counseling, mentoring and peer support as skills the women possessed emerged as a pattern from Uganda, Muckleshoot, Guatemala, and Burkina Faso. Working closely with others is a very natural way for women to connect and communicate with each other, and is a primary way to foster learning. Women naturally take leadership by using these skills. They form strong bonds with others, communities become tighter and people feel cared for and heard.
Perseverance and persistence showed up in Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. Knowing and doing what it takes to accomplish something requires both of these skills. To be responsible for the wellbeing of the family, to feed the children, to find the means to send them to school, all the while under the societal quilt of gender discrimination which places a higher value on boys and men, women must persevere. Women know this and are cultivating these skills to continue to unravel the quilt of patriarchy and breathe more freely into the rights and respect due them.
Practical Management Skills
Education and teaching are critical skills noted by women in Burkina Faso, Guatemala, and Vietnam. As women frequently have fewer opportunities to pursue education due to son preference, poverty, and traditional gender roles, women tend to value this resource very highly. Education can unlock doors and provide a clear path toward leadership; teachers are highly respected people in most societies. Teaching is a skill that can elevate others and benefit whole communities. Both of these skills resonate with the overarching theme of helping one’s self while helping one’s community. Claudine from Burkina Faso passionately reports, after seeing a heart-breaking situation, that “I searched within myself for the strength that would permit me to bring about a solution, to promote and especially to safeguard the human rights that had been so flouted here; in short, to encourage change.”
Planning and organizing are skills mentioned in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Uganda. These skills are needed in management and leadership around the world. For example, in Uganda when Irene got married she found that the women in her village had formed a group to support each other during times of bereavement. Each member contributes a small amount of money towards the fund and when they lose someone they draw from it to meet funeral expenses. When Irene joined she used this opportunity to share her thoughts on how the women could benefit more from their group by using this money more profitably instead of waiting for someone to die. Today, the group’s purpose has evolved into a savings scheme where members can save and borrow money to pay fees, start up small income-generating businesses. Additionally, the members use the group as a forum to discuss other issues.
The combination of delegation, decision-making, being assertive and mobilizing clearly emerged as a skill set from Uganda and Nicaragua. These skills rely on other hard skills such as planning and organization. For example Julie, a participant in the Uganda Conversation who does peace and justice work with refugees, noted that mobilizing encompasses many other skills, including participation, consultation, dialogue, decision-making, ownership, planning, consensus-building and evaluation.
Visioning and goal-setting are named in Burkina Faso, Guatemala and Uganda. Leaders everywhere practice these competencies. For example, healthy communities are important to Cecilia in Guatemala. She is a loan officer working with over 150 women in her community. She has participated in many youth group activities that seek to engage young people in positive activities, such as organizing women’s soccer teams, organizing a group of youths who perform costume dancing. She has also participated in activities to raise money for children with disabilities.
All of these practical leadership skills stem from a solid base of self-confidence and belief in one’s self. Susan from Uganda draws the connection between self-confidence and leadership stating that “among the skills or things that have enhanced [my] leadership potential [is] believing in myself as a person.”
The differences between the women’s responses are relatively few despite coming from eight completely different cultures.
Interestingly, only in Uganda was active pursuit of faith and belief in God mentioned as a leadership skill. The women in the Uganda Conversation said that God and reading the Bible have guided them in their leadership skill development – especially in their self-belief – and that doing projects in their church is a natural way for them to use and develop their leadership skills.
Mention of God and faith emerged in other contexts in response to this question, but to a lesser degree. In all of the Conversations, the pursuit of faith and spirituality were viewed as a way to communicate, bond and engage in one’s community. Belief in God appeared as a way for individuals to gain the strength to pursue any of the skills listed above, especially through prayer and searching for guidance and direction.
Vietnam brought up three skills not mentioned by any other group for Question Two: project management, service, and a women’s club specifically dedicated to assisting survivors of domestic violence. Variations of these skills also arose in responses to project Questions One and Three, respectfully. Also unique to Vietnam is the quality or skill called “dam dang.” A general interpretation seems to be that women are taught to embody cultural traditions and high ethical and moral character while being honest, brave, hard-working and exceptional both in building families and in any professional pursuits.
Only in Guatemala was overcoming selfishness mentioned, as was being responsible. Variations of responsibility came up elsewhere, as it is a proficiency held by countless women and an expectation of women that exists in all patriarchal societies. Overcoming selfishness is intriguing and evokes curiosity to know more. It also sounds more like a desired way of being than an actual skill. Conversation leader Mabila said, “These women expressed that they felt committed to the work that each does for the experience of working with other women… ” It seems that perhaps overcoming selfishness means moving beyond their own challenges and engaging with others in the community, and it’s a reminder that they are working together to lift themselves up. Women in Guatemala face many challenges such as poverty, no or limited access to education, healthcare, family planning and a machismo culture that endorses acts of violence against women. Women in Guatemala are selflessly pursuing betterment in themselves, their families and their communities.
Love and humility showed up specifically in Nicaragua. Lidieth expresses these qualities in the following way, “I have worked in the vegetable garden of the community to provide the best nutrition and lead a group to defend the integrity of women, youth and children.” The undercurrent of love can be assumed in other skills listed such as compassion, communication, participation and patience, but the actual naming happened only with the women of Nicaragua. Likewise, humility is interwoven in many of the soft skills listed as the participants remain modest about their strengths and contributions to their communities.
Lastly, women as knowledge carriers showed up in Muckleshoot. This expression brilliantly captures women as sources of wisdom, healing and nurturing, as holders of ancient knowing in present times.
The women in these Conversations stress that communication and participation are intrinsic components in how women lead, emphasizing the affirmative and inclusive nature to women’s leadership. Particular to each of these are related skills such as being truthful, compassionate, engaging in supportive relationships (mentoring, teaching), persevering despite hardship and intentionally cultivating positive thinking. Listening, an undervalued yet powerful piece to women’s leadership was also frequently mentioned, as was self-confidence. The majority of skills listed by participants fell into the categories of personal behavior and soft leadership skills. Too often, these skills are overlooked because they do not match the dominant leadership style presented in most countries, which emphasize more “masculine” and task focused skill sets.
Women’s leadership skills offer the way to a deeply needed paradigm shift for both women and men and communities worldwide. Women’s ways of leading are affirmative and nurturing, and women as knowledge carriers in positions of power can be relied upon to make inclusive decisions that uphold and value the whole community.