Servant Leadership And Gender Equality

Cut-off in mid-sentence, confused and a little stunned, I watched as my carefully planned seminar appeared to unravel. Several of my participants were having a disagreement about something. Others nodded their heads in agreement; a few clearly had other thoughts. I wondered, “Had I said something offensive?”

Turning to my translator, I asked her to give me the gist of the animated dialog going on between my participants. “It’s not you,” she said. “They love what you’re teaching them about servant leadership. But they are struggling with how to make it work in all their different situations. They don’t understand how to connect the theory with their reality.”

This past month I took my first trip to Afghanistan. I had been invited to present seminars on servant leadership to several groups. One group—a last minute addition to the schedule—consisted of 40 women who headed various departments and organizations within the Afghan government. What had originally been set to be a short half-day seminar had morphed at the last minute into a 3-day event. While my other workshops were presented to English-speaking groups, this presentation had to be presented in Dari, the variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. Subtle concepts like servant leadership required careful translation.

My teaching partner and I put our heads together at the first break and brainstormed some solutions that helped us deliver value for the remainder of the seminar. As I usually do at the end of all my seminars and workshops, I went around the room asking each of the participants to share a little bit of what ideas they were going to take away and implement after they returned to work. In an impassioned speech that she had typed out in advance, one woman, a university professor, spoke for the group (partially quoted, partially paraphrased):

We grew up in the middle of war, at the heart of violence, discrimination, exclusions. But we have learned from our childhood period to not abandon, to not accept the breakage, to go away and don’t beck against hundreds [of] problems. As women and mothers we tried twice as hard as men to pass from a path which wasn’t smooth, wasn’t short and easy. We grew up in a society which doesn’t believe [in] equal rights for women even though [today] we sit in management chairs.

And here’s what touched my heart and challenged my soul:

We want to know [from you] how we can pass from this situation successfully. Show us the research and studies of women like us who have struggled with similar fates and, if possible, share with us the secrets of their success. Where do we start? How do we manage the tension between women managers and our [male] employees who continue to exhibit their physical power, economic power, and of course their political power? This you must teach us in your future programs.

As I stood and listened to what was on the group’s heart, I promised I would return with materials to facilitate their discovery. But, as I said to them, the answer can’t come from me. After all, I said, I am neither a woman, nor an Afghan. As empathetic as I might be, I am hampered by my own cultural and sexual identity. The answers that will work for them must come from them. At best, I can only hope to facilitate the conversation. My vision is that I could return with examples and testimonies from women in other emerging societies who have made progress in the area of gender equality.

So, dear readers, I turn to you for help. Who, in your opinion, are people with whom I should have a conversation? I’m looking for introductions to experts on emerging models of female empowerment?


David McNamee, Ph.D.
David McNamee, Ph.D.
David McNamee, Ph.D. is an author, master educator, and leadership expert with documented success in public, private, domestic, and international sectors. David is a Professor of Leadership at the University of Arkansas Grantham, International Faculty at Jesuit Worldwide Learning, and a member of the Board of Directors at the Rotary Fellowship of Leadership Education and Development. With his son, he is co-author of "Servant Leadership Lessons for Middle School" available on Amazon.

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  1. OK, you have my heart beating wildly, David! I can only imagine how stunned you were with what you learned in Afghanistan, with those brave and dedicated women who want and deserve so much more than they have.

    I hope you can find others to talk with, and not just from and about “those” countries we view from our high moral ground, standing aloof from what many here think only happens “over there.” Of course American women are further along than those in Afghanistan, but honestly, we’re not nearly as evolved as some would have us believe … seeing what’s being proposed by men and agreed to by women here currently is indicative of that (to me, at least).

    Not politics, just reality. We all deserve a chance to have open and honest dialog about how everyone — no matter their gender, race, background, culture — can live a free, strong, and healthy life.

    OK, off my soapbox now. Thank you for sharing your article. I look forward to seeing how others respond.

    • Hi Susan, Thanks for your thoughts. It was definitely an eye-opening experience. The other leadership groups were equally amazing. I had no idea there was such a thirst for knowledge and such energy to move beyond the war in which ALL the people I met have grown up in.

      Western examples of gender equality are inadequate and possibly even harmful in their cultural context. In America, we had to deal with, at most, a few hundred years of history. In Afghanistan, they are trying to overcome a few thousand years of gender oppression. The answers to their questions and their ultimate decisions as to what constitutes gender equality will have to be something that comes from them. And it may look markedly different from American/Western ideas.

    • David, what a wonderful article and reach-out for help! I can’t tell you how greatly I appreciate your understanding that we can’t measure the Afghan culture by the Western yardstick. Having lived overseas for almost 8 years and recently repatriating (and finding it quite difficult!), I came to better understand the intensely competitive culture we have here in America, and that our culture and our approach to gender equality won’t work there. I see that you understand this and hope desperately that someone who comes from the East can provide you with resources! I’ll keep my ears open as I do happen to have a wide-range of international connections now 🙂

    • Thanks for the comments Elena. One of the things that struck me in every meeting was the unbridled optimism everyone had that things will get better and the impatience they had with the pace of change. 70% of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 30. So they have literally grown up in the shadow of war. Moreover, they are reaching the age where they don’t want their children to grow up in that same shadow.