Leadership As Risk And Open Dialogue By Xochitl Alvizo

Regardless of the context, leadership is too often simply an imitation and implementation of business management strategies that are designed to ‘lead’ people toward a predetermined goal. In business the goal is to maximize profits, minimize cost, and increase production, and as long as it is serves that purpose, employee satisfaction is sought and minimally maintained. I reviewed Ronald A. Heifetz classic text on leadership, Leadership Without Easy Answers, which does take the discussion of leadership into a different direction. And although it does not fall in the direction I want to eventually go, it does offer a solid place to start this conversation on leadership. [1] 

Heifetz calls attention to the way in which leaders are looked upon and defined in a way that serves to relieve individual responsibility. Thus, Heifetz proposes that

Instead of looking for saviors, we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that require us to learn new ways.[2]

New ways is precisely what we need for a new world, a transformed world. Many of the articles and essays I have read by feminists on the topic of leadership echo this very sentiment; if we are going to move beyond a patriarchal reality, and an understanding of power as domination, then we need to all step in and actively participate to enact and embody that different and new reality. Simply put, we must all become leaders.[3] Leadership cannot be about “helping” or making change easier for people (or the maintenance of the status quo); it must be about being a sister participant toward a shared vision for a transformed world. Only together can we move away from fear of the new, or at least out of the way, and work to support each other in living into a feminist vision for a transformed world.

I have many feminists I look to as the ‘saints’  who point me to a feminist understanding of leadership that involves both risk and dialogue – that both move us into new horizons, while also investing in mutual communal empowerment (thank you Kitt for your inspiring work in the area of saints). In an essay Audre Lorde presented at a conference, she referred to herself as someone who was doing her work and called on those present to also do theirs. She said,

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you are sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?[4]

In her, I see an example of a leader who does not allow herself to be used as a scapegoat or allow herself to be looked to for easy answers. In her words she understands herself to be someone who does the hard work and at the same time is called to challenge others to do theirs; for what is at stake when we don’t do our work is the continuation of a world of tyrannies that will eventually kill us all. In such a reality, silence is not an option and of all our participation is required.

Feminists, of course, also reflect on the fact that too often leaders abuse their power and use it to dominate and impose their own particular perspective and agenda. Instead of inspiring all people’s participation toward new and creative ways of living and relating, some leaders stifle differences and squelch discussion and debate in order to impose their already determined vision or maintain the status quo. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz spoke to this when she told her story at a conference at Harvard. As she recalled the moment that she was born a feminist and that initiated her into the feminist work of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, she says that one of the biggest lessons that came with that moment was about power. She and other women from the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) had just met with a bishop they had long thought of as an ally, who, when the crucial moment came, backed out of supporting their work because it would cost him his position as a bishop – it would cost him his power.

Isasi-Diaz encountered the all too familiar distortion of leadership within patriarchy – ‘leadership’ as the power to cause or stifle change, always based on the agenda of a privileged few. In such a context, discussion and debate is unwelcomed dissent. Change initiated by the community, by the ‘people’ and not the leader, is policed and squelched, especially if the change sought threatens the privileged position of the few. Of course, this can and does also happen within feminist circles, but not so much because of a feminist tendency to squelch diversity or difference – I believe feminists have always recognized the necessity of diversity and have sought to welcome and encourage it – but diversity and difference get squelched in the breakdown of dialogue. The breakdown in dialogue, which is usually unintended, has the effect of silencing the voices of the marginalized and as a consequence also stifles change. A leader then must be someone who is aware of the dynamics of power at work in a setting of difference, calls us others to also be aware, and welcomes dialogue. For too often, when diversity and difference are squelched, it is the minority voices that will first end up being silenced, thereby initiating the breakdown in dialogue that mirrors old patriarchal patterns.

How do we participate in and practice facilitating open dialogue? And how do we practice living into the risk that this kind of leadership entails? This is obviously an ongoing conversation, and this is also an incomplete post that I invite you to help me continue to develop with the help of your comments…


[1] Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994).

[2] Heifetz, 2.

[3] Two issues of Woman of Power: A magazine of feminism, spirituality, and politics, were invaluable resources for this reflection: Issue Twenty-Two: Summer, 1992; theme: “Women in Community;” and Issue Twenty-Four: Summer, 1995; theme: “Leadership: Feminist, Spiritual, and Political.”

[4] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches. (Crossing Press: Berkeley, 1984) 41.



Categories: Feminism, Gender and Power, General, Power relations

Tags: , ,

3 replies

  1. One of the things I am learning while teaching a diverse group of female students of many races and ethnicities is not to be paralyzed by criticism and accusations of racism. Though I strive to be non-racist and fair-minded, I accept the fact that simply by “being there” and “being white,” I or other white women may be accused of causing injustice we did not cause or of not working hard enough to change it. I am trying not to be surprised by this and to accept that when it happens, it probably is about something real, even though it may not be about me. This enables me to recognize the injustice of our lives and the pain it is causing, while not accepting guilt for things I did not cause. So far this seems to be a better way to encourage dialogue across difference. I should also add that I am learning a lot from my students and I love them, even when they make me feel uncomfortable.

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  2. Carol, that is a great way to respond. You hear and affirm your student’s experience, which helps maintain the continued dialogue, and also recognize that it reflects the reality of a much larger system of injustice. So your way of responding respects both experiences, your students’ and your own, and fosters continued engagement and participation, which in itself is models a new way of being and relating. I really think that if we practice and embody a new way of having conversation across and with our differences, we make real a new world…thank you for helping do that.

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