Fletcher Reflections – Christabell Makokha
Feminist Leadership – It is not for the faint of heart.
Over the course of my career, I have taken many a leadership course. Often, they were helpful, but sometimes I struggled to reconcile my disposition and cultural upbringing with the values being promoted by what I refer to as traditional perspectives of leadership. Traditionally, leadership is defined as a “process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” By definition, this means that the leader has to exercise power (whether soft or hard power) to achieve the outcomes they desire. I have always struggled with this notion of exercising power over another individual––it feels a tad bit manipulative and assumes that the leader knows best, otherwise why would others follow? Instead, I’ve been curious about how leadership that is based on deeper human connections and empathy would look like.
My search led me to a definition of leadership that felt more authentic and resonated with the kinds of interactions I wanted to have with people––feminist leadership. Feminist leadership is defined as “a style of leadership with characteristics commonly associated with social constructs of femininity, i.e., collaborative, relational, consensus-building, open, intuitive, and so on. Feminist leadership differs from traditional forms of leadership because it focuses on how one can use their power and privilege to lead collaboratively rather than exerting power over another.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here are some reflections on what I have learnt about feminist leadership:
It begins with honest self-reflection. You cannot be a feminist leader without being willing to hold up a mirror to yourself and interrogate how you show up as a leader and how your leadership affects others. As a leader, does your presence invite dialogue? Are you willing to cede power and hold space for voices that might disagree with yours? What aspects of how you show up can make it difficult for others to express themselves?
It takes courage to exercise feminist leadership. Building deeper human connections requires a level of vulnerability that leaders are often not accustomed to; most leaders can feel like they do not have permission to be vulnerable or show any signs of weakness. I’ll be the first to admit that vulnerability can be a scary concept, especially in light of different forms of oppression (racism, sexism, ageism etc.) that force us to be put up walls to protect ourselves. But, you cannot genuinely lead collaboratively and relationally without it.
The end does not justify the means. At the core of feminist leadership is care and compassion (as opposed to power, dominance, and control). As such, the process matters as much as, if not more than, the outcomes.
Feminist leadership isn’t just about more women occupying leadership positions; it’s a call to revolutionize leadership and lead with more authenticity, empathy, and collaboration. And maybe, just maybe, we can create a more equitable world.
Christabell Makokha is a strategist and development professional with over ten years’ experience in designing and implementing innovative solutions that meet the needs of traditionally underserved and marginalized groups, including women, youth, and rural populations. She is passionate about inclusive development and is currently the Senior Director of Innovation at CARE USA.
Christabell is a Kenyan native and holds a Masters’ degree in Global Business Administration from the Fletcher School, and AB & BE degrees in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering from Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College.