Women Define Leadership

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.

Rebecca West in The Young Rebecca: Writings, 1911-1917

Amid the absurdity of politicians, academics, and celebrities declining to make a plain statement about what it means to be a woman, there is an urgent need to expose the threat presented to leadership in the western world by such irrationality.

Leaders are human beings.  Human beings are either men or women.  Therefore, we need women to lead – not by aping men, but as women – because, as the global leadership crisis suggests, without female leadership, humanity would be in serious trouble.  Perhaps that is why it is.

There are hundreds of definitions of leadership.  Academics and practitioners of leadership training don’t seem to be troubled by this logical incoherence, probably because vagueness allows them to hedge, fudge, and dodge whenever hard questions are asked.  Yet the claim that women define leadership can only be substantiated if we first clarify what we mean by the terms, “woman” and “leadership”.

  • A woman is a human being, that is, a rational animal with intellect and free will. As the female of the species, a woman is naturally equipped to conceive, bear, nurture, and rear children, inspiring the full development of their potential.
  • Leadership is inspiring people to be the best that they can be in working together for the good of all. It is the polar opposite of misleadership, the bullying, deceitful, self-serving perversion that plagues politics, business, and the professions.

The definitions plainly reveal the natural affinity between womanhood and leadership, both inspiring and enabling human flourishing by building community.

Leadership is a human quality, and every person has the potential to lead, though few ever realise that potential because of insecurity, indifference, or indolence.  The obvious differences between men and women might appear to give one sex or the other certain advantages, but a loud voice, a manipulative disposition, and an aggressive manner are in reality rather deceptive as attributes of leadership.  In fact, they indicate a propensity for misleadership.  Moreover, while military success is a popular indicator of leadership qualities, one must, in the interests of honesty and accuracy, take into account the achievements of Boudicca, Joan of Arc, and Agustina de Aragon alongside Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon.

The long and ongoing struggle for women’s rights has insinuated into the minds of many people today the misguided notion that the persistence of male domination suggests that women have psychological and physiological limitations regarding leadership.  This canard is related to the equally unsubstantiated modern belief that women were brutally repressed in Medieval Europe, and only started to emerge from their subjugation with the onset of Modernity some 500 years ago.

French historian, Regine Pernoud, in her fascinating study, Those Terrible Middle Ages, exposes the irrationality of clinging to Enlightenment falsehoods about the lives of women in Medieval Europe: “In notarial acts, it is very common to see a married woman act by herself, in opening, for example, a shop or a trade, and she did so without being obliged to produce her husband’s authorization.  Finally, the tax rolls…when they have been preserved for us, as in the case of Paris at the end of the 13th century, show a host of women plying trades: schoolmistress, doctor, apothecary, plasterer, dyer, copyist, miniaturist, binder, and so on.”

In addition to showing that women worked as millers, merchants, hairdressers, farmers, and even crusaders, Pernoud also reveals the political power of women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche of Castille, and the formidable intellectual achievements of Herrad of Landsberg, Hildegard of Bingen, and Gertrude of Helfta.  Moreover, she points out that the convents provided a normal path for girls who wished to learn beyond the usual level.

It is also worth noting in regard to marriage that Thomas Aquinas, whose work remains relevant to this day, made plain the equal status of women: “If a husband were permitted to abandon his wife, the society of husband and wife would not be an association of equals, but instead a kind of slavery.”  Which is more or less what occurred with the coming of Modernity.

Pernoud says the reintroduction of the Roman Law at the beginning of modern times re-established the subjugation of women.  The power of the paterfamilias and the confinement of women to the bearing and rearing of children were developments of the modern world.  And male domination is never a good thing, for women, men, or society as a whole.  Reversing the injustice has taken the best part of 200 years, and while most fair-minded people acknowledge that the process is far from finished, others discern a troubling regression in the early decades of the third millennium.

The ever-incisive Germaine Greer noted an illuminating distinction in her 1999 book, The Whole Woman: “Thirty years on, femininity is still compulsory for women – and has become an option for men – while genuine femaleness remains grotesque to the point of obscenity.  Meanwhile, the price of the small advances we have made towards sexual equality has been the denial of femaleness as any kind of a distinguishing character.”

The so-called “war between the sexes” is a cliché because it is very old, and a long-standing source of humour, endlessly mined by the entertainment industry.  But it is also a somewhat misleading concept.  Yes, men and women often lock horns, but then so do men with other men, and women with other women.  It all comes down to human nature: where there is a lack of empathy, respect, and compassion, there will inevitably be conflict.  And the many conflicts of the modern world arise from its foundational idea: the autonomous individual, detached from all community ties, and free to choose whatever he or she wants to do or to be.

A nihilistic, narcissistic, materialistic society is never going to promote empathy, respect, and compassion, and this has inevitably been disadvantageous to women.

Sex affects culture; always has, and always will.  And culture – that is, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and aspirations – determines human flourishing or failure.  In communities where empathy, respect, and compassion are not culturally ingrained, the sexual tensions that play havoc with self-absorbed, emotionally immature human beings of either sex will naturally provoke conflict.  And the West is awash in self-absorbed, emotionally immature human beings of both sexes.  Consider this invitation that awaited me in my email this morning:

As campuses reopen fully this fall and student social life revs up, experts are predicting an increase in incidents of student sexual violence.  How can colleges work to prevent them now?  Register for “Strategies to Prevent Student Sexual Violence” to attend our upcoming virtual forum tackling this urgent issue.  Our panelists will discuss the latest research, along with ways that college administrators can create strategies that incorporate student mental-health services, and move to curb alcohol and substance abuse on and off-campus.”

What does that say about the attitudes that have been bred into men and women in a society where the cant handwringing over social dysfunction is endless?  What does this say about the lack of character formation in western society?  And what hope can there be for a culture of empathy, respect, and compassion when individual character is so constantly corrupted?  Men have long been the drivers of this deceit, but the compliance of women is a betrayal of their own superior leadership potential.

Systems cannot resolve the issue; there is no technical fix to this problem because it is cultural.  As commentator, Caitlin Flanagan, noted in The Problem with HR, (The Atlantic July 2019): “HR is not a match for sexual harassment.  It pits male sexual aggression against a system of paperwork and broken promises, and women don’t trust it.  For 30 years we have invested responsibility in HR, and it hasn’t worked out.  We have to find a better way.”

Which is why it should always be kept in mind that culture is shaped, for better or worse, by the person with the responsibility to lead.  Leadership, by definition, must oppose any ideas, beliefs, attitudes, or aspirations that are inimical to human flourishing, and it can only do that if it stands firm on the truth about what it means to be human, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a man.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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  1. A great article Andre. It would be good if it could become compulsary reading at university. My person qualification of a leader is, “The impression that he or she leaves in my mind” – in other words, what can I keep in my mind about him or her? The one root cause for the lack of leadership, is the general degeneration of the human character. The world is in desperate need of real women and real men with character who present themselves for who they are and not what they try to be. Thank you again for this article. Lots to ponder about.

    • Thank you Tobie – we certainly need men and women of character to stand up in this dangerous situation in our troubled world. But it is happening, and more and more courageous people are raising their voices against the creeping totalitarianism that threatens us.

  2. It has been my experience that leadership is not gender specific. I have known and worked with many great leaders, both male and female. I’ve also had exposure to both males and females that were horrible leaders. Bullying tyrants that totally destroyed all potential within their sphere of influence.

  3. I found this quite interesting.It seemed to be written from a women’s point of view. I believe both men and women make good leaders. The trick is just simply being human. Showing care and concern for another’s welfare and wellbeing. Empathy is so important. Women have come along ways. They say behind every good man is a good woman. I believe once we set.our mind to something we see it through. Great article.

    • Thanks Eva – men and women can indeed be great leaders, but as the article says, they bring different strengths to the task, Given the undeniable leadership deficit in the West, men need to address the obvious flaws that have become so widespread, as do women who think they have to be like men to be effective leaders. I appreciate your comments.