See you there!
See you there!
When I first started working in the area of international development, the issue that most drew my attention was that of the plight of women in emerging economies who suffered oppression at the hands of patriarchal societies. Women are by far and away the largest oppressed group in the world still today and most likely to suffer from poverty, conflict and disease. We only need to see what is happening with the likes of groups such as Boko Haram, intent on denying women rights to education and empowerment, to see the urgency of the problem. Even in the more ‘developed’ world, we have a long way to go to establish parity with men in the workplace, in the public sphere and even in the home.
My journey with Hua Dan, the organization that I established to empower migrant and rural women and children with confidence, leadership skills and creativity, has been both a joy and a challenge (see here) but it has also served to underline my commitment to working on issues of women’s empowerment. I’ve blogged before on some of the stories of the women I work with. Dong Fen, the first woman to attend one of our workshops is now the General Manager of our China programmes and oversees all aspects of the day-to-day running of the organization. It has been a joy to witness her growth and maturity into this role, despite the inevitable bumps along the way, and I marvel at how far she has come towards understanding the needs of the communities we work with and what Hua Dan can best contribute to Chinese society. Her commitment, dedication and, most of all, vision of what can be achieved have inspired me beyond belief and I marvel at her continued persistence in the face of numerous obstacles.
It seems to me that the call for feminine leadership has never been stronger. To me, the urgency of having women in positions of leadership is imperative to create a greater balance of power and to neutralize the violence and aggression that still seems to be such a part of our world. As a feminist I have never been of the opinion that the fight is simply about removing all the human barriers to women’s equality but relies just as much on a more nuanced understanding of empowering the ‘feminine qualities’ within each one of us, including men.
To me, part of the problem lies in our de-valuing qualities we often associate with women and to deny their role in leadership. I love this quote of Martin Luther King who talks about the interrelationship between power and love and it could well be argued that this also conveys the tension between ‘male’ and ‘female’ ways of leading.
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
I’ve written previously on the need for a more feminine style of leadership and, in this previous blog post, suggested that women were the custodians of the concept of feminine leadership and that their role was to bring out those qualities of love, compassion, collaboration, creativity, beauty, nurturing, empowerment in themselves and others, including the men they work with and for. This is as much a part of women’s leadership is about as it is supporting women to develop and express those masculine qualities such as strength, discipline, justice, order, integrity. None of these qualities are the exclusive preserve of men or women, but true leadership is evidenced in our ability to draw out and empower these qualities in each other. We need to ensure that we continue to support and strengthen both women and men’s ability to lead in all areas of life, through a higher understanding of our qualities.
What is interesting is that, ultimately, Martin Luther King, chose love. He realized that this was the only power that was really worth having. He himself embodied that traditionally ‘feminine’ quality and used that love to truly express power. Whilst he himself proved that love was not a quality unique to women, his recognition that this supreme quality was really all that mattered is, why I believe, women have a duty to lead – with love – in all aspects of human experience and thus to bring about transformation in our world.
I’ve written before on this blog about my participation in World Blu’s Freedom-Centered Leadership programme. As part of one of my assignments, I was asked to watch the TED Talk of Ben Saunders, an explorer and one of the few people to have walked solo to the North Pole.
Ben’s talk is fascinating and he delivers his story with much warmth, humour and humility, not afraid to share his trials, challenges and failures, and seems to be a genuinely likeable chap. I was impressed by his ordinariness. In his talk, he elaborates on why he chose to attempt (and ultimately accomplish) his polar expedition. He says he’s interested in seeing how we can stretch our potential and believes that, as we go through life, most people are just scratching the surface of what they are capable of achieving.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether explorers like Ben were somewhat willful in their pursuit of breaking physical limits. It seemed an almost macho competition to try to outdo others. But the humility and authenticity with which Ben shares his passion for exploration inspired and reminded me of my own deeply-held belief that our lives should be about making sure we really are pushing the limits of what can be done, because it is part of our spiritual growth. We all need to overcome limitations in thought and push past our fears and doubts into clearer views and experience of our own goodness and potential.
I especially liked Ben’s comment that ‘no one else is an authority on your potential’. It’s easy to succumb to the opinions of others and to allow their perspectives to colour or influence our path in life. Or to stop us following our dreams. It can take a lifetime to overcome the limitations that parents, society, our education may have placed on our
own understanding of what is possible and it’s important that we continue to be self-aware enough of where those little suggestions would try to creep in. In my own journey, it’s been hard sometimes to filter out the well-intentioned, but often misguided, opinions of others and to be super clear on one’s vision. But each of us has a duty to follow the little voice that urges us to express our unique creativity and gifts to the world.
Remember, there is nothing to be afraid of. Ben is living his full potential. Are you living yours?
You can see Ben’s full TED Talk here:
I’m currently taking part in an awesome leadership course – WorldBlu’s Freedom-Centered Leadership programme.
I’ve been a huge fan of WorldBlu’s work, ever since I first read about Traci and the spiritual basis on which she grounds her practice of organizational democracy and freedom-centered leadership. This is not about political democracy but about a better way to run our organisations, with a freedom-centered mindset, that empowers the best of each individual. World Blu says that fear at work manifests itself in many different ways, including low productivity, bad decisions, wastefulness, stress, micro-management and a lack of innovation. According to a Gallup survey, 80% of employees are disengaged at work. To me, the ideas of building companies where freedom is a core principle are intuitively right for any leader who desires to lead with a strong sense of purpose, vision and values-based leadership. Here’s Traci talking about the importance of Freedom-Centered Leadership.
One of the practices that the course demands of it’s participants is to consider the role fear plays in obstructing forward movement in following one’s purpose and vision and radically asks us as leaders to remove fear in our day to day practice as leaders. One of these activities involved a 30 day exploration of The Power Question™ which asks ‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’. I found it fascinating and insightful, not to mention a little hard (!), to keep up this exploration for a full 30 days and, after a few false starts, got into the swing of it. Wow! Did it really open up my eyes to how much influence fear seems to have in our thoughts and actions. I started to see so many aspects of my life, my business and my interactions with others as fear-based and resolved to eliminate this fear from my life.
It can be hard. But readers of this blog will know that I believe the opposite of fear to be love. Therefore, the elimination of fear is paramount to my purpose in life and, as such, deserves all my efforts in mastering and conquering the power that fear would try to have.
It seems to me that one way to do this is to so focus on love that fear simply has no place in our experience. I’m also learning that the conscious elimination of fear has, as it’s by-product, a more quietly confident and humble compassion for ourselves and others that has a transformative effect. When we quieten our senses for long enough to ‘listen’ to our highest sense of right, we can confidently let go of whatever fear it is that seems to have sway.
The World Blu Freedom-Centered Leadership programme gives leaders the opportunity to work through the 10 principles of organizational democracy, as defined on the World Blu site. Principles include Transparency, Accountability, Choice and Dialogue and Listening, and Decentralization. It’s an amazing and life-changing programme and I highly recommend any leader committed to supporting the potential of others and unleashing the power for good of their organization, to take part in the programme. You can find out more on World Blu’s site at www.worldblu.com.
I’ve been thinking about our conversation the other day and what leadership means to me. A few days after we spoke, I took a little online quiz about leadership that had popped up in my inbox. I was asked which ‘leadership role models’ I identified with and was given a list that included the likes of Winston Churchill, Richard Branson, Martin Luther King and Gandhi. I chose Gandhi and, following on from taking the leadership quiz myself was identified as a ‘servant leader’, the great man himself apparently being considered an example of such leadership.
Whilst I cannot begin to compare myself to him and all that he achieved, I admire greatly his quiet and soft-spoken leadership, his commitment to a cause much bigger than himself, and the qualities of humility and integrity that defined his behavior and leadership style. I know I have a long way to go in exhibiting all of those qualities myself but they are definitely ideals that I hold to!
It’s so easy to see leadership in the light of domineering, charismatic, personality-driven or ‘top-down’ leadership, and I know it’s hard to get the balance right, but I have seen that leadership works best when you stand behind people and allow them to flourish. A leadership model that gets ‘self’ out of the way.
I have seen this work in practice many times in my leadership journey. At times, too keen to push my own agenda whilst the calmer, quieter voice of my team members gently urges me to listen to what they have to say; the times when a project calls for a more collaborative leadership style, that beautifully also shifts the burden from my shoulders to a shared sense of purpose; and those moments in a theatre workshop when I am reminded that my only job is to allow that ‘life force’ that Martha Graham so eloquently quotes to flow through me and express itself in liberating the creativity of others.
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others”
To me, great leadership is when we are following a cause much higher than ourselves. When we are enlarging our sense of purpose with the certainty that we are merely instruments in the divine plan. It is a combination of humility with a confident assertion of what you know to be right. It is both a willingness to yield to the ideas and inputs of others as it is to sometimes stand up for what you know in your heart to be right, and true, and fair. Critically, it is to know to do what is best for the vision, independent of the personalities involved.
I haven’t always found that easy. I think I have sometimes allowed a false sense of humility to allow others to ride roughshod over something I believe in my heart at the expense of a productive, coherent vision, unsullied by the opinion of others. Yet, I am learning that it is right, sometimes, to also call others to a higher standard of leadership themselves, in order that we attain a shared goal in service to humanity. We must hold both ourselves and others accountable to that grander vision.
It is the quality of ‘surrender’ that I love the most and that has most defined my personal and professional leadership journey. That giving over of self to the divine and all that requires. That spiritual journey, to me, is what all leaders are required to do. It is the quality of their spiritual journey alone, and their commitment to it, that enables the outwards expression of their leadership to flourish.
I think those leadership lessons can then have resonance with everyone’s journey, allowing us all to exhibit ‘leadership’ in our day-to-day lives. To my mind, we are constantly ‘choosing’ leadership on a moment-by-moment basis. In any conflict, for example, we are choosing to take the higher road in how we see the other person. Do we choose to help a small child tie their shoelaces before rushing off to do our own thing? Do we choose to be proactive, rather than reactive in our interactions with others? Do we put down our smartphones to truly listen to what the other is saying?
Leadership to me, then, is a choice. Not a role or title bestowed on us by a job description or someone else’s good estimation of us. It is the choice to take the high road of a broader view of humanity, and cares little for whether we have followers or not. It is the certain knowledge that we are ultimately always and only servant to Love’s vision alone.
Much love, Caroline
In her seminal essay ‘Freedom from Fear’, the prominent pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, called for a ‘revolution of the spirit’ if we are to bring about meaningful change in our world.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a private session with The Lady, as she is known in Myanmar, as part of my involvement with the Forum for Young Global Leader’s at this year’s World Economic Forum for East Asia, held in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. During the session, Daw Suu Kyi turned the tables on our own questions to her by asking us what we felt it would take to overcome the fear that pervades the world. As she sees it, fear is at the root of the world’s most intractable problems and overcoming this fear lies at the heart of our future progress.
Her call struck a chord with me as this very question has been central to my own leadership journey. As a young girl, it seemed to me that we are either living out from a place of fear, or, a place of love. I saw that love was the only transformative force that could meet and master the suffering we see around us and I determined at this young age to make overcoming fear through the highest expression of love my reason for being and the purpose behind my professional life. So far, that has manifested itself in a commitment to using the arts for personal and social transformation.
My interest in the power of spiritual thinking lead me to instigate a workshop on Spirituality and Mindful Leadership at this year’s Young Global Leaders Forum, during which we had the privilege of visiting several religious institutions that have been foundational in bringing progress to Myanmar society. We received an introduction to Theravada Buddhism, the spiritual practice of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, and were also fortunate to spend some time with young students from the Myanmar Institute of Theology. Here, we ran a theatre workshop where we encouraged the students to create images for Myanmar’s future, based on a brainstorm around the spiritual qualities that transcend any one particular religious tradition. Words like ‘compassion’, ‘connection’, ‘humility’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘unity’ were further developed into a series of images that showcased how such principles could be applied to concrete situations in Myanmar’s future progress.
It was wonderful to see the sense of hope that defined the young people of Myanmar and to see the power of a collective vision to mobilise others. Aung San Suu Kyi herself, when asked if she had ever considered giving up her cause, said that, so long as there was one other person who wanted democracy, she would continue in her mission for, to her, our work should always be about the other, the surrendering of self to a higher purpose.
Furthermore, during one of the panel discussions that Daw Suu Kyi was on at the Forum itself, she spoke of the importance of the youth voice and for education to be based on teamwork and the building of skills, not simply the acquisition of knowledge. This is necessary for Myanmar to progress and elevate people to a higher view of their potential than has previously been possible. In my own work, I can attest to the extraordinary power that is unleashed when, through the artistic process, we are able to break down the barriers in our thinking.
During the Forum, Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed that she intends to run for President at the next election and I was particularly struck by her ability to recognize that the current military government is also a part of the Myanmar people. Her vision is no ‘them and us’ situation that rules so much of global politics these days but a more nuanced understanding of the unity that must be found over division if her country is going to progress.
To me, great leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, have demonstrated through their grace, dignity, integrity and poise what is possible in all of us, to lead in whatever sphere we find ourselves in to the full realization of who we are as expressions of Love. That, for me, is the true purpose of leadership and I know that many around the world will join me in supporting Daw Suu Kyi in her bid to lead Myanmar to a fuller expression of her potential, shining her light to also inspire others on their journey towards freedom from fear. And to put out a call to all leaders, big or small, to inspire their own ‘revolution of the spirit’ within themselves and those they lead.
Throughout my time of working in China and setting up Hua Dan, I have been privileged to hear the stories of migrant, rural and urban women who have generously shared their experiences of what it means to be a woman in modern China today.
Furthermore, as theatre people, stories are our medium of communication, windows through which we can empathise and connect, build relationships and a deeper understanding and compassion for others. I am a particular fan of the writer Ben Okri’s quote:
“Stories can conquer fear you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
It was stories about China’s women that first lead me to Beijing in 2003, when I read Xinran’s book, ‘The Good Women of China’. During the 1980s, Xinran hosted a late-night radio programme ‘Words on the Night Breeze’ that encouraged women to call in and relate their stories of living through the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. The stories are powerful and provoking, at times shocking, but always authentic and profound in their insights to the reality of the lives of these women. It was out of a willingness to encourage Chinese women to continue to share their stories that I went to Beijing to establish Hua Dan and create the space for them to do so in our workshops.
Having run workshops in the community in Beijing and Sichuan for nearly 10 years now, Hua Dan’s Creative Director, Yang Yang Tao, and our Senior Associate, Jessica Naish, have a vision to create a performance – ‘Dumpling Dreams’ – that will bring to life the important and little heard stories of migrant women and families in China, stories such as the one of Zhong Na and her grandmother’s eggs
Yang Yang has been particularly encouraged by her recent experiences of interning at the National Theatre of Scotland as part of a British Council project and you can read more about her own story here. Hua Dan sees a big part of it’s job as encouraging the growth of leaders in the arts and we are excited to help Yang Yang achieve her dream of taking a production to Edinburgh Festival.
We’d love you to join us on our journey to take the Dumpling Dreams production to Edinburgh Festival. We need to raise £4000 to bring Yang Yang, Jin Lian and Liu Ran over to Edinburgh in August. If you feel inspired to get involved or donate to the project, please do check out the page on our website here. We look forward to making this dream come true!
When she was a little girl, Zhong Na used to collect eggs from the family chicken to give to her grandmother to sell. At the time, the family couldn’t afford to send her to school. But Zhong Na was determined to get herself an education, so she devised a plan…..
Zhong Na figured her grandmother would hardly notice if she was to squirrel away a few eggs each time, before giving her the rest. She decided that she would be able to sell these eggs herself, to help pay for herself to go to school. I can just imagine this intrepid little girl, secreting these delicate treasures into a cotton sack, with dreams of a promising future ahead of her!
A little while later, her grandmother came across this little sack, to find not only the secret stash of eggs, but a few baby chicks to boot! In her innocence, Zhong Na hadn’t reckoned on the hatching of these eggs, secure as they were in their nice warm sack.
I am touched by Zhong Na’s pure desire to educate herself, of her certainty in a better life for herself and a fearless belief that she could achieve what she needed with a bit of ingenuity and hard work. And I marvel no less at her accidental discovery that the value of her investment in herself had potentially doubled or tripled! Evidence of the entrepreneurial nature of a young girl with a big idea, it seems.
Those of you who follow Hua Dan’s work will know that Zhong Na did go on to get an education, before coming to Beijing and being trained by us to become our first Children’s project manager. Zhong Na has now returned to her village in Shandong province to be with her family and, hopefully, to start up a little branch of Hua Dan with local school children. You can read more about her here.
In the next few months, I’m embarking on a project to share with you the stories that have inspired me on my journey with Hua Dan. I’m also excited to announce that Hua Dan has received a small grant from the Lenovo Foundation to develop a performance, Dumpling Dreams, sharing these stories in a piece that we hope to take to Edinburgh Festival in 2014. I look forward to keeping you updated on the project!