Transformational Leaders


We’ve all had the discussion – with our best friends, boyfriends, families – what would happen if women ran the world? A brother balks at the idea, a father suggests that maybe women would just rather be at home with the kids, a sister recalls her domineering woman boss and catty female coworkers. According to Robin Williams, “we wouldn’t have wars, just intense negotiations every twenty-eight days.” The fact is, disproportionately few women occupy elite positions of leadership. There is no model for what a world dominated by women might look like. But, in the developed world, as technological innovation has propelled productivity to dizzying new levels, as life spans stretch further, and comforts, luxuries, and freedoms transform from distant dreams to basic rights, global society is entering into a new phase.

The recent financial crisis has opened American eyes to the inequalities at home, and an explosion of ngo activity and flows of money from the developed to developing nations reflect a heightened awareness of inequality and injustice abroad. The rise of “green” branding illuminates a new wave of conscious consumerism that turns neoclassical economic theory on its ear. As the centuries of pillaging nature, of fighting to innovate, of creating efficiency, of producing the biggest and baddest comes to a head in the environment, global economy, and international affairs, society is responding by taking a collective stake in fixing the mess.

God’s vision for his Kingdom on earth is a vision of redemption – of fixing the mess of a fallen people – and he equips his faithful children with the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit to make this happen. Seeking the Kingdom means allowing creation to do what it was designed to do: reflect God’s glory. This means making the world a place where the truth of the gospel can be revealed and equipping others to do the will of God. This is a world of living in community, in love, and in conscious emulation of Jesus Christ. In a male-dominated world characterized by greed, selfishness, and mankind’s unswerving desire to dominate, women’s leadership stands as a hopeful alternative, and a resource designed by God to bring about the redemptive power of his Kingdom.

The concept of women’s leadership as a unique, feminine variety is not without criticism. Though some thinkers have reproached the dominant model of women’s leadership for reproducing gender stereotypes, many agree that, gender labels aside, it provides a refreshing alternative to the status quo paradigm of leadership.Y. Billing and M. Alvesson. 2000. Questioning the Notion of Feminine Leadership: A Critical Perspective on the Gender Labelling of Leadership. Per Henrik Lings Väg, Sweden: Blackwell. Women’s leadership is characterized as relations-based, non-hierarchical, participatory, collaborative, and democratic. These qualities also fall under the concept of transformational leadership, which, though not synonymous with women’s leadership, is more likely to be found in women than men.B. Bass and R. Riggio. 2006. Transformational Leadership, Ed. 2. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. p. 112. Other features include providing “individualized consideration, being intellectually stimulating,” and cultivating “good interpersonal skills.” Psychologist Carol Gilligen identifies women leaders as building “strong relationships where they seek to please or serve others.”D. Korten. 2006. The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. p. 324.

Men, in contrast, are more likely to employ a transactional style of leadership, which is more “task-oriented and autocratic.”Bass and Riggio, 114. Gilligen identifies men with the values of “individual autonomy and freedom, moral reasoning, and the vigilant defense of individual rights.”Korten, 324. Men leaders value being “aggressive, competitive, and tough.”Bass and Riggio, 118. Throughout history, this type of leadership has dominated society, and when women reach powerful positions of authority, they are expected to conform. Consider Hilary. A former member of the Ugandan parliament explains, “The numbers matter. Because, if you are two in [government], you won’t change anything. Two against two hundred, what are you? Nothing. You just get sucked in. Before you know it, after five years you are a man in a woman’s skin. So, we need the numbers.”Momaya, Masum. 2009. “Can ‘Feminine’ Leadership Mend the Economic Crisis in Iceland?” AWID.

Why do we need a critical mass of women leaders? David Korten equates the model of “heroic masculinity” embedded in traditional leadership with five thousand years of a society predicated on domination, or what he calls Empire.Korten, 25. Domination-based leadership is focused on acquisition, expansion, and aggression, all features underlying major social ills endemic in unfettered monopoly capitalism, environmental degradation, the exploitation of women and children, and international military conflict.

When financial crisis battered their economy in October 2008, citizens of Iceland, a country known for its successful systematic support of gender equity, directed the blame to the irresponsible, reckless gambling of the “male elite.” Women filled gaps left by men stepping out of positions in government and finance, leading to the emergence of financial institutions based on feminine values, described by one professional as “characterized by balance, transparency, fairness, social responsibility, accountability and sustainability.”Momaya.

All of these qualities are essential to social cohesion, which women have been fostering for millennia. Though devalued under the dominant model as techniques for leadership, or disparaged as hindrances to the pristine linearity of logic and efficiency, women’s emotional and intuitional resources are powerful tools for maintaining bonds between people. Riane Eisler, a social historian, contends that “one of the best kept historical secrets is that practically all the material and social technologies fundamental to civilization were developed before the imposition of a dominator society.”Korten, 93-4. Domination-based leadership, in other words, is not necessary for innovation.

The systematic cultivation of social cohesion is achieved by women-saturated institutions. Non-profits, social work systems, and domestic helping services offer careers that, though not favored with prestige, are more necessary than ever. Progressive social movements are overwhelmingly led by women.Ibid., 232. Why do women occupy a greater proportion of the seats in the lower house of congress in developing countries like Mozambique, Vietnam, and Namibia than in developed countries like France, the U.S., and Japan?Leadership.” Learning Partnership. Developing countries tend to value community more than individualistic developed countries. Why are micro-credit loans directed toward women? Because women invest in their children, families, and communities and hold each other accountable in ways that men do not.

Fostering healthy community based on principles of justice rather than domination would be an innocuous proposition to most Christians. But allowing women to utilize their strengths in this arena as leaders in the church is more controversial. After all, the Bible says:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Tim. 2:11-15, NIV)

In Finally Feminist, John G. Stackhouse warns Christians to interpret this passage with care. “God’s overriding purpose in working with his creation,” he writes, “is to make the truth of the gospel in Christ clear. To accomplish this, God works within human culture, rather than wiping it out and starting fresh.”S. Bauer. 2007. “On Slippery Slopes, the Blogosphere, and (oh, yes) Women.” Books & Culture. Why does Paul instruct the church to pay its taxes to unjust emperors, respect secular authority, and remain content, even as slaves? Because disobedience would discredit the gospel in the larger culture. Paul seems to contradict himself, as Stackhouse elucidates: “He believes that women should keep silent in church and that they should pray and prophesy. How can they do both? By being silent at the right times, and by praying and prophesying at the right times,”Ibid. depending on which behavior would most benefit the spread of the truth of Jesus Christ.

Slavery was long defended in the U.S. using Biblical exegesis, and the endorsement of patriarchy enjoys the same support today. Stackhouse argues that by treating patriarchy as a commandment, instead of a “temporary and sinful cultural phenomenon,” the church prevents men and women from acting “according to their gift and call,” and actually impedes the revelation of the gospel.Ibid.

God made women and men, and he gave unique strengths to each. He called both sexes to bring forth his Kingdom on earth by promoting the revelation of his truth. Since the inception of the church, women have used their strength as a bastion of social cohesion: from “Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe, Andronicus, and Junia,” all of whom Paul praises in his letters, to the Sunday school teachers and ministry leaders that run your home church behind the scenes (whether or not they receive titles or compensation for it), women have been leading the church.

As Christians, we must not undervalue women’s gifts or shy away from the power of the feminine. Was Jesus a transactional leader: individualistic, aggressive, dominating, task-oriented? Or was he more relational? Was his strength in his resistance to attack, or submission to God’s will?

David Korten’s cry to secular authorities rings true for the church as well when he says: “The capacity to anticipate and choose our future is a defining characteristic of the human species. The recent global spread of communications technologies has combined with a confrontation with planetary limits to present us with a unique opportunity and necessity to use this capacity with conscious collective intent.”Korten, 25. As the church, we are invited to allow the Spirit to work in us to promote God’s Kingdom on earth. Our mission is to redeem the world as instruments of God’s salvation. Women have always been leaders in the church. Now is the time to unleash the full potential of women, as part of God’s creation, to deliver on their distinct strengths, including a style of transformational leadership, to foster community, justice, and the truth of the gospel in the church and in the world.


One thought on “Transformational Leaders

  1. Thanks for this good piece. I’m delighted to come across this site!

    I look forward to returning to the Bay Area in April, although you Golden Bears will not approve of the site: Stanford and Palo Alto, April 9–11. Still, maybe you can get over for a lecture or two and then sometime introduce me to the glories of UCal, Berkeley.

    BTW, Susan WB is quoting from my book, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender, a book so small a Berkeley student could read it in an evening….

    (Sad, isn’t it, when authors try to flatter you into reading their stuff?)

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