Leadership for change

A new book by Gaia Van Der Esch looks at female leadership through the lens of seven impressive women.

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What is leadership these days and what do women bring to the table in leadership roles? According to a new book, everyone can be a leader in their own field, their own circle and their own way and it all starts from being clear about why you want to lead.

The book, Leading our way: How women are re-defining leadership, by executive and policy expert Gaia Van Der Esch is a reflection on leadership through the lens of interviews with seven impressive women from across the globe, from climate activist Christiana Figueres to Gloria Steinem.

Van Der Esch outlines how important it is for women leaders to change the rules of the game, to change what is being rewarded or discouraged and how in order to stop perpetuating a faulty system built on discrimination. That means foregrounding qualities such as empathy, collaboration and the common good, with leadership more about circularity than hierarchy.

Figueras, who played such a crucial role in securing the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, kicks off the interviews with a focus on optimism and on what leadership is not. “It is not whatever you have on your business card, nor your title, or what is written on your office door,” she says. “It is not about your position, be it elected or nominated. It’s about how you see yourself in the world with respect to change. And that is an internal commitment, which does not necessarily need you to be occupying particular positions. We are all in roles, in positions, whichever they are in our lives – and we can either decide to lead from there, as the centre of concentric circles that generate change, or we can choose not to, and just go with the flow.”

For Figueras leadership is about being true to yourself and about looking inside for guidance and seeing life is an ongoing process of struggle where you “try to fix one problem, then another, and then another”. Leadership, she says, is a choice and it starts by doing one small thing and building on that, based on your core values and a flexibility to change that draws on our essential vulnerability. She says she is driven by a desire to create a better world for those who come after that and in that she says her terms of reference are those of being a mother.  “My work on climate change, or on opening up the path for more women to participate at all levels of our society, is all about being a mother – it’s just an extension of that. I do it for my daughter, and I do it for all the women surrounding me, and the ones yet to come…”

From curiosity to circularity

Van Der Esch interviews women of all ages and backgrounds. Gitanjali Rao, the 18-year-old inventor, author, social activist and STEM advocate, says she wants to create an innovation movement inspired by curiosity with kindness at its heart, a movement that is motivated not by profit, but by doing things for the common good.

Other interviewees include footballer Becky Sauerbrunn on the team ecosystem and the importance of being consistent, fashion designer Diane von Furstenburg on designing your own life and being in control by being yourself and the Yemeni politician and journalist Tawakkol Karman on fighting for freedom from dictatorship. For Comfort Ero, President of the think-tank International Crisis Group, leadership is about honesty, integrity and listening to others. It’s about how you manage problems, not the problem itself and about searching for common ground.

The book ends with Gloria Steinem, the lifelong feminist campaigner and journalist, for whom leadership is a collective human activity built on inclusivity, meaning both men and women working together. “It’s not power over people, but the power to act together, based on trust, that allows you to bring change,” she says. It’s about equity and circularity, passing on your values and passion to others.

Van Der Esch ends by re-emphasising the themes that are constant throughout the book – about the importance of listening to others and of empathy. There are many reasons women are thought to be more empathetic in their leadership style, and women are not alone in being empathetic, she says, but it is a quality the world needs more of nowadays. The dominant leadership style, designed for and by men, is “no longer fit for purpose”, she says. Instead we need leaders who emphasise the common good, sustainability, fairness and equity, who think about the long term as well as the short term. The good news is that anyone can be a leader in their own way and bring about the change the world needs, says Van Der Esch. “We need each of you as part of this change.”

*Leading our way: How women are re-defining leadership by Gaia Van Der Esch is published by John Wiley & Sons.

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