On the Unavoidable Emergence of Women’s Leadership

For more than three decades, Elizabeth Lesser has worked with leading figures in the field of healing self and society. In 1977, she started the highly respected Omega Institute of Holistic Studies which she envisioned, along with co-founder Stephan Rechtschaffen, as a dynamic “university of life” designed to foster personal growth and social change. A New York Times best-selling author and recent TEDwoman fellow, Elizabeth speaks here with Women Of Green staff writer Sarah Skenazy about leadership, feminism, and how Einstein got it right.

Following the success of the first Women and Power conference in 2002, you’ve been working towards the launch of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center, which is set to open in 2012. What about right now makes it imperative to focus on women as leaders?

While every era in time has suffered from the lack of women in leadership, I do think our times are prime for women to step up to the leadership plate. And by leadership I don’t just mean elected officials. A leader is any individual—anyone reading this for example—who at different times in life and work, chooses to chart or change the course for a family, a community, a business, a town, a school board, a religious organization, or a value system. Leadership is deciding what matters, what to prioritize, how to engage others, how to deal with conflict, how to create and divide wealth, how to share power.

I agree that we’ve been working with an unbalanced sense of societal role models.

Half of the human race has a long history of not being asked to participate in the discovery of new ideas. What a waste! I firmly believe that many of the best ideas that will help humankind in the 21st century will come from women. So, it’s time to ask ourselves, will we help chart a different course for humanity, or will we merely rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic?

What’s kept women out of leadership positions?

Well, there are all the obvious reasons of those in power not wanting to share it, and men fearing women’s power, and women being relegated exclusively to the home for biological, social, religious reasons. Those are all important. But there’s another reason why women have up to this point been less represented in most arenas of leadership. To lead inevitably involves taking a stand—sometimes an unpopular one; it asks us at times to say “yes” to ideas and plans we may feel barely ready to advance, and sometimes to say “no” to people with different ideas and plans. In other words, leadership—while exciting and fulfilling—can also make us feel uncomfortable, un-liked, exposed, even endangered. If we are going to lead, we have to learn how to take personal risks and say what we think. An exciting challenge that faces us is how to trust and express ourselves, our opinions, our instincts, our intelligence with strength and vigor, and at the same time remain compassionate and inclusive and intuitive.

You’ve met and spoken with women from all walks of life through your work with the Omega Institute and the Oprah Winfrey show. What is one issue that comes up again and again?

One issue is that people seem to think the work of feminism is over. Or they think that to be a feminist is to be anti-men. Women AND men should be proud to be feminists! I am not advocating women-only leadership. We need both genders to be fully engaged in solving the problems of our times. And we need to love and respect each other’s unique gifts and to work towards balance—at home, at work, in the world. I’m hoping that leadership in our times will be about women AND men creating something wiser and kinder than either gender could do alone.

Sometimes it seems as though women in leadership positions are hesitant to use the word feminism because of its varied historical connotations. What’s your working definition?

By feminism I mean two things: first, the simple granting of equal rights to women. We take for granted what women have achieved here in America or other parts of the developed world. But in many, many places women have gone backwards in terms of their rights and safety and health. I believe we have a responsibility to use the power we have gained to help the women of the world rise out of conditions that are horrifying, degrading, and lethal.

And the second?

The second definition I have of feminism is a more “spiritual” definition. There are not very good words to describe what I am talking about—I use the words “feminine consciousness,” with great reservations because it is a concept that is easily misunderstood. Both words are misunderstood. “Feminine” has come to mean some sort of domestic goddess, or dolled-up ditz, but that’s not what I mean. I believe there are forces within each human being, and in creation itself: feminine and masculine forces that carry qualities of perception and behavior. When these different yet complementary energies are integrated, each individual—male or female—is at his or her very best: nurturing and proactive, careful and adventurous, inclusive and purposeful. When we are unbalanced—individually and as a culture—our very strengths can backfire.

Albert Einstein said: “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” Meaning, the only way out of seemingly unsolvable problems is to leap into new ways of thinking and being. What might leadership look like if generated from a balanced consciousness? A new consciousness leader knows the difference between strength and force. Strength comes from a deep inner confidence; from loving and respecting and expressing one’s own authentic self. That kind of strength opens the gate to real love of others and life itself. Force comes from a deep inner wound that spawns the urge to dominate and to even the score.

What can be done on the grassroots level to address these issues?

Two equally important things can happen simultaneously. We can work on ourselves, through all sorts of spiritual and psychological technologies, as I call them (including meditation and therapy and healing work.) Anything that helps a woman unearth her native feminine intelligence that has been suppressed by a culture that does not value it. And second, we can find strength and joy and purpose by working to help other people—women and men—reclaim their dignity and rights.

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘green’? What is the words value in contemporary conversations?

I love the word “green.” Like all good words, though, it has been co-opted by media hype, and now it carries some baggage. But that doesn’t mean we should throw it out. It signifies LIFE to me. Alice Walker said, “I feel that as long as the Earth can make a spring every year, I can; I won’t give up until the Earth gives up.” That’s what the word “green” and the green movement mean to me.


The Women’s Leadership Center

Elizabeth’s book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

and The Seeker’s Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure

Elizabeth Lesser is a New York Times best-selling author and the co-founder of Omega Institute, the United States’ largest life-ling learning center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, creativity, and social change. For more than 30 years Elizabeth has worked with leading figures in the fields of healing—healing self and healing society. Her work at Omega has included leading the organization, developing its curricula, teaching, and writing the yearly Omega catalog, a reference book that describes the work of some of the most eminent thinkers and practitioners of our times.

For the past ten years, Elizabeth has spearheaded Omega’s popular Women and Power conferences, renowned gatherings featuring women leaders, authors, activists, and artists from around the world. She is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Center at Omega. In 2008 she helped Oprah Winfrey produce a ten-week online seminar based on Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth. The “webinar” was viewed by more than 2 million people worldwide.

A student of the Sufi master, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan since 1971, Elizabeth has also studied with spiritual teachers and religious scholars from other traditions, as well as psychological practitioners and healers. Ms. Lesser attended Barnard College and San Francisco State University. Previous to her work at Omega, she was a midwife and birth educator.  She has been active in environmental issues for many years in New York State’s Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains, where she lives with her husband. She is the mother of three grown sons.

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