When I was growing up I never thought that I would end up specializing in conflict. I left home actually when I was 13 and I used to ride horses – hunters and jumpers. I wanted to have a long career in riding horses. So I left and I moved in with my horse trainer who happened to live in Nogales, Arizona, on the border of Mexico.
In Nogales, over the next few years I was the minority, but in the horse world when I traveled and showed horses I was the elite. Over the next few years, I saw so much in the areas of social injustice in terms of racism and discrimination. By seventeen I was very confused. I couldn’t figure out why this was going on. I wasn’t sure what my role would be in terms of doing something about it. Then I was at that turning point – what was I supposed to do; continue with the horses or try and do something else. Which I had no idea what that would look like.
I consider it divine intervention, but one day my lung collapsed. I had a spontaneous pneumothorax and actually, you know, re-inflated all by itself, but I couldn’t ride horses for six weeks. It gave me this time to step back and think what was really important to me.
What I decided, because I was 17 and very idealistic, that this racism I was experiencing was just a big misunderstanding. That it would only take a few years to just go out and transform the planet – then I could go back to the horses. Which where my life really wanted to go. Of course the joke is it has been 25 years since I’ve been on a horse, and that is what has brought me here today.
The issue that I want to talk about which I think is the singular most important issue in our time right now is the lack of leadership. Now we’ve just been through a heavy election cycle. You might be wanting to roll yours eyes and say wait a minute have we not debated leadership ad nauseam over the past year – or years. What I want to present to you is what I consider a feminine approach to leadership. Which I think is our call to action today. This is not my definition. It comes from the Oxford Leadership Academy, but we define leadership as – leadership is about relationships and the conversation is the relationship. So if we as individuals or collectively or those of us who are in power positions are not able or willing to come to the table and engage in conversation – are we leading?
This is easier said than done – right? I want share a few things with you today that what I think is necessary to bring us to that table where we can have the conversation. The first thing is that we need to put values first – not positions. Now many of us if I were to ask you right now what are your core values – we all know what they are, we all have, we all share many of them. We believe in respect, in terms of honesty, being trustworthy, valuing people is often even one of our values.
The test is not the values that we carry, but how do we show up when our values are being compromised. For instance, when you’re driving down the street and someone cuts you off – do you bless them? Or do you curse them? That is real though. It’s how we show up when our values are being compromised that will determine who we are today and will also determine our future.
Back in the late 90’s early 2000, I was working in South Africa and I was training police. At that time South Africa was the murder and the rape capital of the world. One day, I had nine of the provincial police commissioners in the room – all men and me. There had just been this horrific case of a young girl, nine years old, she had taken the bus after school, had gotten off the bus and she was brutally gang raped.
She had to be reconstructed from the inside-out. At nine they didn’t know if she was going to be able to keep her uterus. So I decided to turn to these guys and I said, “okay guys – here’s a case – what are you going to do?” The first response in the room was “where was her mother? If her mother had been there when she had got off the bus this would have never happened.”
So, as a woman, I had a few feelings about that statement and a few things I would have loved to say in that moment – very choice things. I realized is what he was giving me was his position. I didn’t know the values were that led him to feeling that way. So my mantra whenever I’m feeling emotionally hijacked is to say “tell me more”. That gives me a chance to center, breathe, and be able to hear and go deeper to whoever I’m talking to. In that moment I turned to this group of men and said “okay, tell me more”.
The next man said “well it’s because her mother worked. If she didn’t work, she would have been there and the girl would have been safe.” Another man said “you know, my wife is also in the police, but I won’t let her go to workshops or seminars because if she makes more money than me, if she gets promoted – we can’t be married”.
Another man said, he slammed his fist on the table, and he said “gender equity – that is what is destroying the fabric of this country”. So again, I breathe – took a deep breath – turned to my mantra and I said “tell me more. What is it about gender equity that you feel is so destructive?” And they said to me – and this is where the real stories came and this is where the value connection came – and they talked about being a person of color in the Apartheid years and as being a man who wanted to be the protector of their family.
They had to bow in submission to another person because of the color of their skin. They could not protect their children from being ridiculed, or their wives, or their families and extended families. So when Apartheid was over, because women of all over the world have been the most oppressed gender equity was a major focus. Now a lot of these men felt like well if I go up against my wife, my wife will get the job and I won’t. They’re feeling even more emasculated post-Apartheid.
Now it didn’t matter if I agreed or disagreed or that I could debate on every issue – that wasn’t the point because that would be going back to positions. The only way to move the conversation forward was to think about what were our shared values. As a woman I want to be valued, I want to have a place at the table, I want to be able to take care of my family, I want to be respected. I led the conversation from there. Then we moved and what’s interesting is that documentary film makers know this technique.
Have you ever watched a really contentious documentary film? In the first act is usually someone saying, very justified and defensive, this is why I did it and I was right to do what I did and this is just how it is. When the filmmaker stays present, doesn’t judge, doesn’t get into a debate and just says “tell me more” – they move into the second act. Which is huh – maybe this is how I see it, they start to reflect – maybe there are some other ways of looking at the situation.
So then we can move impossibly into the third act – which is often where the person will say “you know, maybe my way wasn’t always the right way and maybe there could be some other possibilities.” We cannot get to that third act if we are going to put positions and judgements and make each other defensive. We have to connect on our values. I consider men and women, especially in this context – the best metaphor I’ve ever heard was that men and women are like two wings of a bird – and a bird cannot fly with just one wing.
In today’s world we get so extreme in our positions that we forget that we’re really a bird of humanity that is looking to fly. In this country, I looked at Democrats and Republicans as two wings of America’s bird and if we don’t come to the table and work together, our bird is going to crash land. Okay. In the Middle East – Israel, Palestinians – two wings of a bird. Even more recently, I would actually argue – the US and Iran – two wings of a bird. Lately, that is one for me that has been sitting heavy in my heart, because I work a lot in the Middle East. I’ve had nights where I’ve stayed up; I’ve had heart palpitations and anxiety – wondering are we going to World War III? Is it inevitable? Can we find a peaceful solution?
Well, just before Thanksgiving, I happen to be working in Bahrain – a tiny gulf country that’s been in crisis since 2011. I’ve been doing a lot of reconciliation work there. I happened to be there during the most important Shia Islamic holiday – and it is called the Mourning of Muharram. If you’re not familiar with how history goes, is that Imam Husyan was the prophet’s grandson.
During that time period, the government forces at that time wanted to see him dead. And so, as history depicts it, he and 72 of his closest followers and family were willing to meet a mass of an army of 30,000 strong knowing that they were going to assassinated – knowing that they were going to be beheaded. So every year, for 10 days, in Shia Islam is this most important holiday to commemorate and remember and mourn the sacrifice this man gave.
My friends, I have very dear Shia friends, who took me into the city at night to experience these celebrations. They said to me, they said “you know – this is what the West does not understand. It is the spirit of Imam Husyan that lives inside us. There is no power, no matter how big, that we will ever allow to dominate us. There is no one – no matter what weapons they have – that are going to bring us down. We are not afraid to die.”
In that moment, my heart starts racing, I start having palpitations, a panic attack is going and I’m thinking we’re destined for war. We’re going to have World War III. Where can I move? What island is going to be safe? Where can I take my child? Then I got centered again and I went back to my mantra and I asked them “so, tell me more? Tell me more about what makes, for you, Imam Husyan so sacred.” He just looked at me and very easily said “he sacrificed. He sacrificed his life so that we could live.”
Immediately I felt relief. I could identify with sacrifice. The value of sacrifice. As a mother, I would gladly sacrifice my life so that my children could live– or my child, I have one child – my child could live. As a country, we have a voluntary military that is willing to sacrifice so that we can continue our way of life. You know, Israel, Palestinians, are willing to sacrifice their lives for future generations. That is a value that we can connect with. If we can connect on that value – we can connect on other values as well. We need to be able to bring these values to the table and talk about them – not our positions. Otherwise we will never be able to have the conversation.
Something happens, especially when we’re scared, when we get emotionally hijacked, when we get angry, when we feel like we are being threatened in any way. As a good person we have this thing called a conscience, right? Unless you have a neurological pathology going on, most people have a conscience. So as a person, as a good person, we don’t just hate or feel anger or dislike another person – that would not work with our conscience.
So we have to dehumanize and demonize in order to hate. When I used to work in domestic violence – I never heard a man say “yeah, I went home and I beat my wife, Sally”. No. It was I beat that ‘slut’; I beat that ‘ho’. Sally was a woman. Sally could have been the mother of his children, but a ‘ho’, a ‘slut’, she was nothing. When I worked in Rwanda, the Hutus referred to the Tutsis during the genocide as cockroaches, because nobody could think about killing somebody’s mother, son, infant child, grandmother, grandfather – but we can kill a cockroach.
You know – and when you kill a cockroach you want to take out the entire nest. The other day I was watching TV and I was watching the news and one of those news bars came across and it said ‘US drones have killed over 2,000 terrorists in 2012’. Since 9/11, terrorist has become the slur of choice. It’s how we dehumanize the other, the one that scares us and makes us afraid.
Which leads into my final point – which is one; we can never come to the table unless we’re going to talk about values. We have to see each other as people – not objects that can be dehumanized and demonized. Again, because we have this thing called a conscience and we all have it, is that a good person doesn’t just dehumanize or demonize. We have to feel morally justified in how we feel. How do we get that moral justification?
I call it – we build armies. We go around and we talk to our friends, our family, our co-workers, and we find out “hey, you know those people? You feel that way? I feel that way? Great!” If they feel this way and I feel this way and the news is telling me that what I’m believing and thinking is true as well – then I am morally justified in my position. We are no longer talking values, we are back into positions. Now we hold on to them because we have a moral justification as to why we are right.
If leadership is about relationships and the conversations is the relationship, we are not going to be able to go into the conversation unless we put values first, unless we see each other as people – not objects that can be dehumanized – and we need to work on solving problems. It is not about being right, not matter how we feel, we are morally justified. My commitment here to you today is that I am willing to do the work that is necessary for me to be able to come to the table and have the conversation, to lead within my circles of influence, but this is depersonalized work, it’s for us to do – for you, for me, for us individually and collectively. My invitation to you is – will you choose to lead with me?