As the #metoo movement has swept over the globe, sometimes it seems to me that we live in the world of angry women and confused men. Many of us have certainly lost our capacity to be in our masculine and feminine centres - or yin and yang, or, following Jung, animus and anima - which are available to us regardless of gender. More: if we can’t access or use one of them, we aren’t complete as human beings, and certainly not as leaders.
A Balance of Energies
What is the difference between the masculine and the feminine energies? To be clear, again we possess both, regardless of our gender. Society pressures us to fulfil gender expectations, but for our personal growth it’s essential to develop both types of qualities.
Based on Michelle Cross and according to tantric teachings, the masculine energy also described as Shiva represents that which is strong, steady, solid, constant, directional, active and dense. The feminine energy, Shakti, on the other hand, is fluid, flowing, changeable, liquid, resting, vast, timeless and eternal.
So where masculine is all about the left brain and the doing, the feminine is about the right brain and the being. Where yang is assertive and striving, yin is receptive and becoming. Shiva penetrates, Shakti surrenders and receives and in this way a balanced universe is their co-creation, their dance and their lovemaking. If either of the energies is dominant for too long, an imbalance occurs and the union of both principles, which allows us to access a state of flow and long term sustainability, is no longer possible.
The business world has a long legacy of being out of balance, even more so - in my view - than other parts of the world we’ve created. Many believe the very principles of doing business, starting and scaling companies, come from the masculine. There’s definitely some truth in that. Without the penetrative, strong-willed quality that strives to impose something on reality as it is, that disrupts in order to make space for the new and isn’t afraid to piss off quite a few people in the process, few entrepreneurs can succeed. I observe and respect this trait, particularly in the technology world.
But without being able to also lead from the feminine, long term sustainability and success is, in my view, impossible. What are the qualities of a leader aware of, and working from, his or her feminine centre? I would sum them up as openness, receptivity, creativity and surrender.
When you lead from the feminine principle, you rest in the place of inner authority, not lent to you by hierarchy but harnessed from the core of your being. In other words earned through self-knowledge and the courage to get to know the entirety of your who you are. Darkness included. The journey of mastering the qualities of leadership from the feminine part - or the heroine’s journey - is not as much a journey of knowledge, as it is one of opening, remembering and finding her meaningful place in society or local community. Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Newham, Cambridge, points out in her little book “Women and Power” that we need to start thinking about power in a way that’s decoupled from prestige, or in ways that are coded as male. It’s all about thinking collaboratively, treating power as an attribute (“to power”), or even a verb as opposed to a noun.
The Power of Powerlessness
I’m truly fascinated by how the concept of power changes in the context of leadership from the feminine principle. The ultimate power comes from surrender to powerlessness. I may believe that I control my business or my reality but in actual fact, there are forces way beyond my control that impact both in a significant way. This, when truly embraced, has dramatic consequences.
The feminine leader within you already knows that a sense of control over your company or your life is an illusion. Of course we can move towards things that attract us and evolve past personal limitations. We can achieve things we previously thought were impossible. We can choose A over B and every choice we take has tangible consequences.
Yet while these things are true, in the bigger scheme of things, a sense of control is an illusion. There are bigger forces and dynamics at play. The more I’m in touch with myself, the more I recognise I’m happiest when tuned into guidance on where and how my talents are best used; surrendering and listening in other than trying to pursue a plan I created for myself.
In other words, when I move out of the way, and truly recognise my powerlessness, paradoxically a sense of deeper power and agency emerges. This doesn’t happen instantaneously though. I need to be prepared to sit with the silence within, and listen. More often than not I’m tempted to fill the silence with some sort of a plan or new agenda because it’s very uncomfortable for my mind not to know. But if I hold out, sooner or later there’s a sense of clarity about next steps, which emerges from a place beyond my personal agenda, or a desire to be recognised as decisive and effective. As my inner journey evolves, and trust in myself increases, I move from a place of surrender and listening in more and more, both in life and in business.
What also emerges, at least has done on my own journey of exploring the feminine, is a sense of lightness and playfulness. The feminine doesn’t particularly care about the rules of social and political correctness, she flies above what’s considered appropriate, in and outside of the business context. Just over a year ago I got invited to join a prestigious panel of experts in the space of engineering and technology whose aim is to influence Government’s policy for the benefit of the sector and collaborate to create thought leadership around key issues. The invitation came directly from the panel’s chairman and I was honestly a little confused to receive it. I even tried to send a senior member or the grants team instead as I felt I didn’t have enough experience or expertise to offer. It didn’t work, I learnt that the invitation was strictly personal.
After the formal part of the meeting we all enjoyed a beautiful three course dinner in an adjacent dining room. It was then that the mystery was finally solved. I sat next to the panel’s secretary who mentioned the chairman saw me deliver a “really engaging talk” at one of the industry conferences and decided to invite me to join the panel. Nothing would be extraordinary about this if it weren’t for the subject of the talk, which was a variation of a TEDx I’d delivered earlier, titled The businesswoman and the stripper. The talk I gave and which the chairman saw and remembered involved drawing parallels between what I learnt as an open culture company leader and what skills I gained performing on nightclub stages as a burlesque diva. It was the first time, in this risqué talk, that I decided to bring two very different aspects of my life and personality together and present, no care for political correctness, the full spectrum of my talent and uniqueness. I received plenty of great feedback on my talk and yet it was an amazing surprise to learn that it also earned me a seat on IET’s policy panel.
The Dance of the Masculine and the Feminine
Similarly GrantTree, now over fifty people strong, which I started nine years ago, there is a constant dance between that which comes from the feminine leadership (our wholesome culture, the wellbeing of people) and that which comes from the masculine (profitability and competitiveness in our market). Sometimes the former is on top, just like when we set up the self set salary scheme, or implemented holacracy as our governance structure, sometimes the latter is. When we have an important target to hit, for example. Hilariously, I have heard that we are both too focussed on our culture and too focussed on commercial success. That tells me, overall, we are probably on the right track.
Summing up, I believe that self aware individuals, startups and small organisations are the incubators of social change. Because of this, I’ve worked in small companies and created ones pretty much all my working life, striving to remain aligned with where I believe workplaces are headed. Every now and then, when I take a breath and look up from the daily hassle, I get glimpses of what the future holds. I see a world where we choose to work, instead of having to work, because it’s a fundamental expression of who we are. I see workplaces which hold space for you to discover yourself both in your masculine and in your feminine expression, hone in on your mastery, face your weakness and find your true path, rather than being a place where you earn enough money to (hopefully, one day) do all of the above elsewhere. I see a world where following your true path is profitable and comes without a struggle to survive in the material world on one hand, or vast compromises on the other. That’s what the future holds. Let’s go there together.
The last paragraph comes from the manifesto which begins a book I’ve written on open culture and what we’ve learnt on our path there, while dancing burlesque! Hence the provocative title: Laid Bare: what the business leader learnt from the stripper. It’s currently on Amazon’s Hot New Release list and you can pre-order it here.
About Paulina Tenner
Paulina is an entrepreneur, an angel investor, a TEDx speaker and a founder of GrantTree, started with a purpose to help tech startups navigate the complex world of government funding. Since 2010 the team grew organically from 2 to 50 and raised over £200n for more than 600 technology startups and scaleups using solely government funding schemes such as R&D tax credits and Innovate UK grants. GrantTree is also an open culture company which pioneered a self set salary scheme, and an empowering culture governed by holacracy.
Paulina is also a seed investor and a startup mentor, who features as a keynote speaker at technology conferences worldwide. She has been interviewed by the BBC, the Financial Times, the Guardian, featured on Channel 5, in the Huffington Post and Virginstartups.com.
***Here is the link from our show Paulina and I had Dec 29, 2021 ***
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