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Women's Understanding of Leadership in Community-Profit Oganisations

Women's Understanding of Leadership in Community-Profit Oganisations

by Patricia Marlette Black BA, MEd.

from Women’s Leadership in Community-Profit Organisations,
Doctoral Thesis , Queensland University of Technology, 1999, pp. 146-176.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

7.1 Introduction

Chapter 6 presented the research findings describing the participants and their organisations. This chapter presents the patterns of results about women’s understanding of leadership in community-profit organisations - patterns which emerge from immersion in the texts, coding and categorising the texts and from memo writing. To probe the participants’ understandings of leadership the researcher asked them to respond to questions about their images of leadership, about the components of good leadership, about how they understand their leadership role, about the relationship between designated leaders and non-positional leaders, about their understanding of power and about women’s leadership in general. Through such questions the researcher was attempting to explore the understandings of leadership based upon the lived experience of that social reality from the point of view of the participants. This chapter provides the data on their understanding of leadership and the following chapter looks at the experience or practice of leadership of the participants.

7.2 Images of Leadership

The participants were asked ‘Can you think of an image or symbol that describes leadership in your organisation?’ because symbol, metaphor, and the use of images are keys to ways of thinking and ways of seeing that pervade our understanding of social realities such as leadership. Two or three of the 57 participants had difficulty with thinking metaphorically, but almost all of the sample were able to describe the leadership of their organisation through use of a symbol. Analysis of the participants’ responses to the question gathered together in the node ‘Images of Leadership’ in NUDIST led to five categories proposed by the researcher: connection images, life images, personal images, institution images and a category called ‘other’.

Connection Images

Over half of the sample use what this researcher calls ‘connection’ images. These are images that connote equality, mutuality, linking, joining, sharing, coming together, working together. Connection images of leadership described by the participants are consistent with their perception of themselves as relational, inclusive, good communicators and committed to networking (see Figure 6.2). Many of the participants, both designated leaders and non-positional leaders, use circles as the image of leadership in their organisations as the following extracts from some of the interviews illustrate:

Circles, because we sit in circles and that’s how decisions get made. And the power is the circle; whether we’re in small groups or in the management committee, we go around the circle and people talk about their ideas and people are included. You could also look at it as this whole process is circular and you never get anywhere, but I think if you look at the services on the ground that’s not true. Yes, sitting in circles. (Ella)

My image of our leadership is circular, it’s decentralised, it’s sharing. There is no one who sits in the middle. We all make up the circle, however; no one sits outside the circle. We all hold hands and work together. Sometimes, it’s a slow process, and sometimes in particular instances I might feel ‘Let’s get a move on here’. But it’s really important that that kind of process happens. I think the fluid nature of power sharing in our group ties in well with our small number too; though for us, even if numbers were larger we would still endeavour to maintain this equality. (Ita)

Well, the first thing that came to my mind was a circle because the group that I’m involved in always begins with a sharing circle and ends with a sharing circle and that to me seems to symbolise what we’re trying to do. There is no hierarchical thing that we are trying to do; it is a circle and we try to sit in a circle as much as possible. At some of the meetings there is an object that is passed around and you can’t speak until you are holding it. So the circle is a very strong feeling. (Una)

Other connection images that emerge in the responses are those of tables and meals. Eve’s image is of a table in the house where the leadership group of her organisation, which has over 1000 members, gathers:

Oh, the table at Erica’s house, because everything seems to happen around that table! That’s where discussions are held, that’s where the newsletter gets folded, that’s where things get done. It’s not a round table, but it’s a large table so lots of people can fit around it. And it’s set in a domestic location. My mum came up to help us with a project and she got to visit Erica’s house a few times and she thought how marvellous it was that you could flow from the kitchen right through to the living room with this table in the middle. And even when things were a hive of activity people could be doing something in the kitchen and still take part in things ... It certainly keeps things from becoming too bureaucratic. (Eve)

An image associated with both meals and circles is that of a cup, chosen by several of the participants to describe leadership in their organisations. For example, Lara says she chose the cup as an image because it is ‘a vessel open to receive but also out of which much can be given’ and it symbolises that ‘in all our endeavours, including leadership, we recognise the gifts and talents of everyone and work in a way to bring them out in people’.

The connection image chosen by Kiri to describe leadership in her organisation is the web:

It’s like a web. You can keep turning a corner and staying on the web. It’s all linked. It applies too to the fact that we have such a small number of active members. No one person is responsible and you haven’t got people who aren’t responsible in the group. Everybody’s got their little bit of responsibility, so therefore we all have to exercise leadership and doing our bit. If somebody breaks down, there’s a major collapse. (Kiri)

Nora’s connection image describes leadership in her organisation as being like ‘standing in a line of midwives going back into the past, standing in the point of readiness, midwifing the future’. Erica’s symbol is the grevillia flower because ‘it’s reaching out and it has a large centre and lots of pieces going out; it takes up a big place on the paper and everybody is important’. A knitting pattern is the image chosen by Bea to describe leadership in her organisation because ‘there is feedback and connections in all directions’.

Life/Movement Images

One quarter of the participants chose images of life, of strength, of movement to describe leadership in their organisations. These images give a sense of a leadership that is vibrant, growing and purposeful. They include animal images, images of moving vehicles and images of movement and growth.

Animal images include a bird, a gazelle and a can of worms. Jocelyn chose a gazelle as the image of leadership in her organisation because ‘it captures the sense of going forward’ and ‘it is a vital and surging, not a decadent model’. Angela chose a bird because it is associated with ‘movement forward’. Daisy’s image is of the can of worms on the computer screen saver because ‘people take leadership at different times on different things and you’ve got lots of people involved in it’.

Two images that capture the sense of vibrancy and movement of leadership in community-profit organisations are those of a flame and of mountain climbing. Lala’s image is that of the flame:

The thing that jumps immediately into my mind is a flame. It is burning which holds people together. It activates things and catalyses things and burns off the dross and keeps us committed to the core. The things that really matter to the spirit; it is the image of spirit as well. (Lala)

Agnes believes that in her organisation they are trying to get away from the image of leadership as ‘an old woman who sits in a wheel chair knitting’ and capture a new one:

So I suppose I’m saying that we’ve got a complete new generation here very different from the women of the past, better educated women, and they’re out there and they’re doing things ... perhaps the image of a woman climbing a mountain and she’s getting there. (Agnes)

Several of the participants chose a moving vehicle as their image of leadership in their organisation. One of these participants is Grace:

Some kind of vehicle, an open vehicle that has a certain number of people on board; probably someone driving, but different ones can take the driving seat. They are on a journey, everyone with eyes looking out to what’s needed in the countryside as we pass by, inviting people on board. Anyone already on the vehicle can invite anyone on board, having lots of discussion and laughter and fun as we go but always with an eye to what we can change. It’s a vehicle with no cover on it, no sides, bits built on at various stages. The vehicle itself changes, and everyone with an eye to what can be changed, what can be transformed, who can add to it, people getting on, getting off, different drivers at different times. I guess the main drivers would be from the core team but there are different drivers at times. But checking that we’re going in a positive way and we might go down little tracks that we have to back out of and I like that kind of leadership. (Grace)

Other Images

Only two participants in the sample chose a personal image and one participant chose an institutional image to describe leadership in their organisations. Six of the participants chose a variety of other images such as a shepherd and sitting on a see-saw. Holly chose the image of a heart and related an incident which captures for her why the heart is an appropriate image of leadership in her organisation:

Yes, it’s heart stuff; the commitment comes from the heart. The heart would be a symbol, yes, very much. For example, meeting older women at the National Conference last year was so inspiring. They don’t give up and you ask ‘Where is this commitment coming from?’ And that’s where it comes from - it’s heart politics. There was a wonderful moment; actually it was one of the healing moments of the handover from the old to the new designated leadership, where at the start of one of the sessions at this National Conference last year one of the younger women tried to get us singing at the beginning of the session so it wasn’t like a formal meeting with formal meeting procedure and there was this energy around singing together. So a couple of these younger women put up on the board the words of a song about the women at Greenham Common and tried to teach us and get us singing this, you see. And we entered into this. We didn’t do it all that well; we didn’t have any musical accompaniment but we did it; we sang. And when we were finished with it and we were about to go into the business the woman who was the immediate past national President, a woman in her seventies, got up and said: ‘There is just something that I want to say. I’m not trying to upstage anyone but I just thought you’d like to know that I was present when that song was composed’. And then she told us the story. It was just so powerful; yeah, that’s power! They are living history these women. They were on a train going somewhere and ... It’s interesting, because in one sense it isn’t a women’s organisation that gets a lot of publicity. So it works from the back or underneath. It’s not one of those women’s groups that is prominent in the media. That’s partly the history of it and also partly the nature of it. (Holly)

The images chosen by the participants to describe leadership in their organisations reveal an understanding of leadership that is collaborative, appreciative of the contribution of everyone in the organisation, vibrant and purposeful. It is an understanding of leadership that focuses on interactions in the group and on the work of the organisation rather than on the leader herself.

7.3 Recipe for Effective Leadership

To explore how women understand leadership in community-profit organisations the researcher asked the participants to list the ingredients they would put into a recipe for effective leadership. This question aimed to elicit from the participants what they understood as the most significant components of the leadership interaction. Table 7.1 shows the frequency distribution of participants’ suggested ingredients for a recipe for effective leadership. Communication skills are particularly important for non-positional leaders while honesty and integrity and openness are important for the designated leaders in the sample.

Table 7.1 Frequency distribution of participants’ suggested ingredients in a recipe for effective leadership

Suggested ingredient

Number of designated leaders (n=35)

Number of non-positional leaders (n=22)

% of total participants

Communication skills
















Ability to collaborate




Ability to empower others




Relationship building




Sense of humour








Analytical skills












Balance between work and personal life








Organisational skills




Conflict resolution skills








Margot says that ‘to believe you’ve got all the answers is a fatal flaw’ and emphasises the importance of ‘believing that the energy and the answers to the questions of life are out there - they’re not contained within the leadership necessarily’. Jade also emphasises the importance of openness and believes that leaders have ‘to be able to put aside their own set agendas’ in order to be open to the agendas of the wider membership. For Eve openness means being able ‘to look at new ideas and to reshape ideas and adapt ideas and bring in people with ideas’. Una describes the importance of openness this way:

And sometimes it seems that after listening, to have a mind that can expand on something that’s said, sometimes when people get stuck on something they’ve said, to find another solution, in a facilitator’s role that’s actually part of the role, to suggest another way of looking at it, to find another view. (Una)

Holly’s comments on the importance of communication as an element in effective leadership are typical of comments made by both non-positional and designated leaders:

You have got to be honest and level and open communication has to be there. There has to be trust and good communication flow so that people aren’t excluded. There has to be a culture of inclusiveness and that includes including people by keeping them well-informed of everything that’s happening that’s relative to the group so that people feel they belong. That’s very important. An effective leader has to make sure that communication channels are good and that all members are well informed. That’s the first one because you build trust on that. (Holly)

Having a vision and a set of goals for the group and helping the members of the group to stay focused on the vision is of particular importance to non-positional leaders, but is also significant for the designated leaders in the sample. Several of the participants express ideas similar to those of Ria who says:

I think to have some sort of vision and the ability to capture people’s imagination, to inspire people to believe that the task is possible, the goal is achievable, I think is probably the initial step, that solutions can be found. (Ria)

The ability to collaborate is seen as an important ingredient by the designated leaders in particular, but also by a significant number of the non-positional leaders. Gina describes the ability to collaborate as ‘the ability to take other people’s ideas on board and process them and to be able to work with others for the good of everyone’. The following responses from Ria and Holly also express what participants mean by the ability to collaborate:

I’d also include participative decision making so that both the process and the outcome are sufficient to maintain people’s continued involvement, and benefit from their skills and finally be the solution that they’re looking for so that you deliver the goods. A self-nominating meritocracy I call it; you know, you paint the overview, you enthuse people, you show them how it could be done and you allow them to identify what part they would like to play in it. So I’ve seen that just work so successfully time and time again - people in areas that their life skill would never allow them, doesn’t appear to have equipped them for, or their life situation would never allow them to have access to, end up being able to do these really remarkable things and often it’s that experience, not actually getting to the goal that leads them to changed life circumstances. (Ria)

And the other really important ingredient of leadership is realising that you don’t have to do it all yourself and women fall into this trap all the time because they think they aren’t good enough; they always think they have to try harder. And it’s realising that the talents are in the group and the leader doesn’t have to do it all herself. That’s number two. You don’t have to control it; you can’t control it really. If you try to you’ll be in strife. That gets back to the ego getting in the way. It’s your ideas about goals and aims and your understanding of the relationship between process and outcome. And if you’re hooked on outcome your ego will get caught into it. But if your balance is towards process and you accept that you can’t achieve everything then you don’t have the ego investment in outcomes. That’s a different sort of leadership, isn’t it? Process automatically demands involvement by more than one; it demands an acknowledgment of the whole group and not just your ego. It revolves around having a group commitment without ego attachment. In a group whose goals are values-based that’s particularly important because you have to make sure the goals are operative in the process. (Holly)

Other ingredients mentioned by a significant number of the participants are the ability to empower others, relationship building and a sense of humour. It is interesting to note that it is the designated leaders who identify a sense of humour as an important component of the leadership interaction. Table 7.1 lists the ingredients that were suggested for a recipe for effective leadership, including those mentioned by only a small number of participants. There is much wisdom expressed by the participants in commenting on these ingredients even though the ingredients are not mentioned by a large number of the participants. For example, Jocelyn comments:

I think if you are going to influence people (and there are no leaders without followers) and leadership is influencing people to get things done, you have to show your own humanity, show your own frailties and be willing to laugh at them, go out on a limb and make a mistake. But you have to know pretty quickly when you’ve made a mistake and get the retrieval system working. My recipe would never include never make a mistake or never be seen to make one. (Jocelyn)

Cara comments on the importance of passion or energy as something that holds all the ingredients together:

And a commitment and a passion for the thing you’re doing. And I suppose passion depends on how you define it; but talking from a community basis, to survive you have to have a lot of energy. If you’re not feeling like you’re too interested or energetic about an issue, I think it takes too much of a toll. You need more energy in a community organisation because of the lack of resources and structures. Often the community is inbred and we’ll often be on other committees and provide support to workers in other organisations and government departments too. In a community organisation you are often in a stand alone position, so the demands tend to be much higher and it’s much harder to feel like there are other people or organisations to take up those issues. Maybe it’s a different form of energy in a community organisation, not more energy. (Cara)

The participants’ suggested ingredients in a recipe for effective leadership show that the participants understand leadership as a relationship based on good communication, collaboration and an openness to accepting the contributions of others. This understanding of leadership is consistent with that revealed in the participants’ images of leadership and in their perception of themselves as relational leaders who are good communicators (see Figure 6.2). The designated leaders stress that such a relationship demands honesty and integrity in those who form the relationship and both designated and non-positional believe that the relationship is based on the common commitment to shared vision and goals for the group.

7.4 Participants' Perceptions of the Relationship Between Designated Leaders and Non-Positional Leaders

In order to explore further the understanding that the participants have of leadership as a relationship between members of a group, the participants were asked to describe the relationship between those in designated leadership positions in their organisations and those who were non-positional leaders or active followers in their organisations. As this is a key relationship in the leadership interaction, the researcher was interested in the perceptions of this relationship from the perspectives of those who exercised designated leadership as well as those who exercised non-positional leadership in the research organisations. Table 7.2 shows the relative support for five different categories of statements by participants about the perceived relationship between designated leaders and non-positional leaders in the research organisations. These categories were developed by the researcher after clustering together quotations from the interviews with similar responses to the question asking the participants to describe the relationship between the designated leaders and the non-positional leaders in their organisations. Strong, moderate or weak support for a position was determined in terms of the number of sentences given to talking about the position in NUDIST as well as by the number of participants who adopted the position.

There is overwhelming support from both designated leaders and non-positional leaders in the sample for the position that the relationship is healthy, open and collaborative. There is strong support from the whole sample for the perception that the relationship between those in designated leadership positions and those in non-positional leadership (or active followership) is a healthy, open relationship.

Table 7.2 Relative support for statements of participants’ perceptions of the relationship between designated leaders and non-positional leaders

Participants’ perceptions of the relationship between designated leaders and non-positional leaders

Designated leaders

Non-positional leaders

Positions make no difference



Collaborative relationship with shared responsibility



Healthy, open relationship



Distinct roles, salaries and responsibilities but open and collaborative



Some concerns about the relationship



Key: *** strong support

** moderate support

* weak support

Ria describes the openness of the relationship in the example of a particular practice that her organisation has adopted:

We’ve introduced things like ‘the chat’ where any time new information comes up because it’s a very complex, information-wise organisation, anyone can call a chat no matter where you are in the pecking order. ‘I’ve got a problem’ - and everyone gets involved in the solution whether they’re the resource worker or the clerical assistant or whatever, so that works and works really easily because we’re all women, and most of us live in co-ops so we’re used to that kind of decision making process. (Ria)

Beryl as a paid employee in her organisation holds a designated leadership position as coordinator but is also accountable to a management committee made up of volunteers. Her comments on the relationship between designated leaders and non-positional leaders are given from both perspectives and are typical of those participants who were paid employees in the research organisations:

... now we have an extremely talented, dedicated chair who has a clear understanding and we think very alike, so we complement what we think the role is. She trusts my decision making and doesn’t, isn’t on my back every five minutes if she sees something, is readily available day or night and I brief her regularly. When we don’t meet at committee we meet informally and I brief her so she is always up to date. And with the committee, because I see them every month at least and I work on most of the sub-committees I feel they have a very good understanding of what I do and in turn what the staff do. So it’s been very good this year. In previous years they’ve had none .... but this year they seem to have a far better understanding; but they’re also coming here more often and are invited to more functions with us and get more involved. The relationship between coordinator and staff I would consider it to be healthy in that if I have concerns or issues that I would discuss those directly with the people involved. If I felt it was out of my depth I would talk to someone else to try and get some assistance and I feel that the staff can come and talk to me although some don’t because I know they can be intimidated by my nature regardless of how I talk. I know some people won’t choose to come and talk with me. There’s very little I can do about that. I’ve promoted you can write to me; there’s little I can do except try to be aware if they’re not right and approach them. Overall I don’t promote I’m your boss you do as I say; I don’t like that and never have and the reason I’m coordinator is to coordinate activities. I’m not there to manage how they do what they do because, I don’t know, they do that better than I do, so I try to put that across. I think people feel that and I try to have people own stuff ... That power and control stuff, you’ve got to put the brakes on but I think it’s healthy. (Beryl)

Many of the participants believed that holding the position of designated leader or not made little difference to how people worked together in the organisation . This perception was held more strongly by the designated leaders, but non-positional leaders also gave this perception moderate support. Lucy and Yetta see little difference between the positional and non-positional leaders in their organisations:

I don’t find any difference in the relationship really, because we are into sharing, encouraging, trust, cooperation. We form sub-committees and people will do things that I have no talent for anyhow ... We’re all just taking our turns at these jobs and hopefully people who have never held any designated positions will do so in the future. Actually it will be that most of our members will have held some position at some time. (Lucy)

There isn’t that kind of differentiation. It’s really fairly equal in terms of - there are people who are leaders by virtue of personality but not by any virtue of election or being raised up whereby the ethos of the group supports the concept of leadership. I mean, nobody thinks about leaders, it’s not something that we discuss, we never put people forward as leader ... People have those positions because we need to have so many directors or whatever; it is to fulfil certain legal criteria and in terms of the say that people have and in terms of the input it’s up to the individual entirely. It does tend to be that people who make that commitment probably do more things, but that isn’t by virtue of them holding those positions but by virtue of them wanting to do that. And we could have an organisation with no directors, there is no president or anything of that nature. We could have a different person facilitating the meeting each week, there’s not a nominal head, there are people to do things like be the secretary or the treasurer because they are jobs that need to be done. But all those people could not exist and the same dynamics would happen in the group. (Yetta)

Eve concurs that those who wish to hold designated leadership positions have a chance to do so in her organisation:

I don’t actually think that there are a group of women out there aspiring to designated leadership roles in the organisation and they just didn’t get the chance to get there. I think it’s quite the reverse. There are lots of people who are willing to be active followers at the moment and are happy about the way the structures will emerge and they will get their chance if they aspire to positions of leadership. Or they can actually take on other formal leadership roles. For example, there is a fund-raising group that has emerged. The same occurred in earlier stages when we were developing policy. People were very happy for those who were going to take a leading role in developing policy to develop drafts and then put them out for consultation because people found it very hard to put their minds around what might be the shape of a policy. Once they saw something on paper they were happy to be part of a critiquing process ... It was a very collaborative process. (Eve)

There is strong support from the participants for acknowledging the distinct roles, salaries and responsibilities accorded to those with designated leadership positions but they perceive the relationship within the context of those distinctions as open and collaborative. The designated leaders are especially strong in their perceptions of the relationship between themselves and non-positional leaders as a collaborative one. The distinct responsibilities of the those in designated leadership are described by Beth:

They see me as the person who has the greater responsibilities and earns more than them. They see me as responsible for strategic directions and responsible to make contact with key bureaucrats ... The staff would also see me as someone who enables things to get done. Coordinator is a good title because a lot of the things that I do, I coordinate activities that enable staff to get - They see me as their spokesperson on the committee ... Staff would see me as support to them. (Beth)

Una’s description of how her organisation is trying to come to terms with the reality of designated positions while at the same time making sure that there is no suggestion of a hierarchy in the organisation typifies the concern for equality and mutuality in the leadership interactions in community-profit organisations that are having to adopt more structures in order to ensure ongoing supply of and accountability for funding:

So one of the issues we’re discussing is trying to think of a different word because we don’t want directors and members; we want all people, but because of the structure we need to have directors. But to myself it makes no difference to the role I actually play in the group. Facilitators can be anyone. Now we have a situation where a facilitator facilitates for three meetings with a co-facilitator and then that co-facilitator takes over for the next three. We’re actually going to try it in a structured way, to take turns, so I don’t feel I need to be a director ... There was an issue at one of the last meetings we had. One of the members - you have to put down if you’re a member or director solely because you have to make the quorum - and she put in sausage which on the Agenda went out to all the directors, because she’s just concerned that just having the term existing doesn’t sound too good, like having to see it in the book, so we’re going to try and scrap the word director. It may go into legal documents that go to the Registrar, but within our meetings I suggest that we write the letter ‘D’ in that column so that you don’t actually write the word but it’s there as a guide so that you know how many. Something like that so that it doesn’t look - if it is a concern because we really don’t want to have any sort of elite hierarchy effect. (Una)

Joy describes the attitude of many of the designated leaders who see their position as a responsibility within the group, not as status putting them above the group:

Strangely enough, it’s probably one of the few organisations where we all see ourselves as women. We all have - we just admire the organisation so much that - I don’t see myself as any different to any member who goes along to the meetings. It’s just that I have a job to do and that’s to run the meeting. And I can be a President and stand up and trip over and fall back and laugh about it or something like that. So I don’t see myself as being different to any other members. And they are - like the grass roots people, the members, are the most important people in the organisation and I think if you set yourself up to be different from them then you are not going to get them to support you. (Joy)

As a non-positional leader, Lala agrees that positions of designated leadership are a responsibility within the group and on behalf of the group:

People are in the organisation in their own personal identity and they live that out in whatever shape or form that they do regardless who they are. I think with that strong sense of identity that you are living from a basis of similar vision and similar values without real investment of authority as such in any person over, above and outside yourself in a team. The team is there to facilitate the ongoing activities of the group between the decision making periods but it is the local groups who decide on what activities and whatever will be done except for major events. (Lala)

There is weak support from both designated leaders and non-positional leaders for the perception that the relationship between them is problematical. This perception is stronger in those organisations that have for some time adopted and operated out of a strong feminist ideology. Beth sums up the concerns that are expressed by a few of the participants, concerns that are the result of demands for more structures and accountability:

From the management committee’s point of view, without me, they don’t know what’s going on. I am delegated by them to conduct the day to day running of the centre. I’ve got the content, the strategies and the issues. I sometimes think that I don’t need a management committee. It feels like they are just another layer that I have to resource. I do a lot of the researching, partly because that is the sort of person I am and I like to do things well and it is slightly a control issue as well. There is this notion that is shared by many of the staff that management committees can get elected, they can have no association with the centre, they can have no sense of belonging to this place and they can be in a very powerful position, where they can dictate a lot of policies. There is potential for the centre to shift off in some direction that - I suppose that the staff feel that they have a right to a greater say because they have made a commitment to work here. The relationship has been at times problematic. It is currently very good and I think it’s about good selection of management committee, but also about the management committee having a sense of what their role is. (Beth)

The research findings show that the participants, whether designated leaders or non-positional leaders, perceive the relationship between them to be one in which the designated leaders have distinct roles and salaries and responsibilities but these distinctions do not affect the open and collaborative interaction of the designated and non-positional leaders in their organisations. Equality, mutuality and collaboration are so valued by designated leaders and non-positional leaders alike that they form a primary framework within which leadership interactions occur, even in those contexts where there is a demand for more formal structures. Erica encapsulates the general attitude of all of the participants when she says:

There is a general concept that leadership is someone out front - the leader - and others trot behind. And it’s scary ... We’ve really shared around the leadership and it’s really been good ... so it’s a very inclusive relationship and there is shared responsibility for reaching our goals. (Erica)

7.5 Women's Understanding of Power in Their Exercise of Leadership in Community-Profit Organisation

In order to generate data about the understanding that designated leaders and non-positional leaders have of power, the participants were asked if they think of themselves as someone who has or has had power. They were also asked whether in their experience there had been any jockeying for power in their organisations.

Eighty percent of the participants give a qualified ‘yes’ answer to the question about whether they think of themselves as someone who has or has had power. The qualifications given by the participants focus on the definition of power. The participants have a certain wariness about using the word power. Lara suggests that this wariness is because ‘women have so often experienced powerlessness they are very aware of what it means to use power well and to see it in the wider context of empowering others out of the resource of their own power, not domination.’ Freda says:

Less and less power is my frame of reference. I think there have been times in the past when getting power was very important to me thinking I could do something. In one role I had I was responsible for the closure of a major institution, a major service of which I was the director, and I think at that time of my development having the power that was associated with that role was quite important and I was quite conscious of that and of using that. I think there are times now where I probably forget that I have some power. Power doesn’t figure strongly in my thinking and sometimes I have to consciously remember that I am in power relationships with government or with other people in the community that I am trying to influence and I have to decide how I want to use that power. I think power is a very useful tool to think about inequity in relationship and access to resources, so it is certainly part of my social analysis. But I guess because I work in an organisation that works very collegially I’m not conscious of it day to day. (Freda)

Dora expresses in her own response the acute awareness that many of the participants have that the misuse of power can work against their conscious choice of collaborative, mutual and participative interactions:

Yes, I have power in my workplace. The mere fact of being a worker, automatically the clients associate you as someone who is more powerful; so I’m always aware of those power issues and I think power is associated with you whether you think you have it or not. And I think that in my work I do as much as I can to lessen that gap with the clients or workers or whatever and that comes into the language you use, where you sit - I’ll sit on the floor if they feel more comfortable - and being nonjudgemental and trying to do what sort of stuff lessens that. Because I think everyone has a certain amount of power. Even if you sit silently somewhere you have a certain amount of power ... I think the thing is that with the women I work with it can be detrimental. Like, if you come in as judgemental and authoritarian they just back off and you’ll get nowhere so in that situation I think ... but if you’re in a forum where you’re lobbying for your clients’ issues in a policy arena then I think you use all the power you have because they use all theirs so it’s an advantage. (Dora)

Like the majority of participants, Joy is at pains to distance herself from the understanding of power as something used for one’s personal aggrandisement:

No, I don’t think I have power. Not in the sense of power, you’re down there sort of thing. If you’re saying power, I would look at it in the sense of influencing change, from that point of view. So I don’t interpret power in the normal perception of power. We have goals where we want our organisation to be so it’s saying to people, ‘Yes, we can do this.’ That’s how I see power. I do influence people. At a local level if there’s a bit of dissension they will ring me and say ‘What do you think?’ So obviously people respect my opinion, which is very flattering but it’s not something I dine out on all the time. I don’t normally talk like this about myself sort of thing because I’m not comfortable in talking about how great I am or I’m supposed to be. I think that’s typical of women. (Joy)

Approximately one third of the participants agree that they think of themselves as having power if power is understood as a connective energy between people. There are no differences between designated leaders and non-positional leaders in the support for this understanding of power among the participants. Keely’s and Mariah’s responses are typical of this group of participants:

I hate power. It’s funny; if there is ever any public relations thing I hate that and I try to keep away from the camera and those things. I like having ideas and I like seeing those ideas implemented and I think I really like change and things happening and I like people to be a part of it. I certainly like to see people as a part of that change and directing that change. I know that I’m certainly very grass roots in that I believe you don’t get change unless it comes from people themselves. I suppose I believe in networking and I see that I have influence rather than power through networking and moral support and because I have confidence in valuing other people’s unique skills and contributions as I see this nurtures and encourages people’s involvement in a group. So you have to try to tap at the base of what people want in a way. And use your influence to network and link those people. The important thing is using other people’s power to make changes happen. (Keely)

I, like a lot of other people, was brought up as a religious sister on the traditional spirituality where power was a negative, supposedly negative thing for women. I’ve come to understand power as being the empowering of my own being and the empowering of people with whom I work and I have no fear of power at that level as long as there are people and situations around to call, to evaluate, to discern, to keep linking. So the dynamics of it, the relational aspect of it is what I’m interested in and it’s always a changing thing. Power’s not a dirty word. It’s a word about enabling and my interest in these last few years and my choices have been to work for women, to gain some sense of their own story and the empowering of one another they can do in that. (Mariah)

One fifth of the participants agreed that they had power if power is defined as group energy and another one fifth agreed that they had power if power means personal power. Again, there are few differences between designated leaders and non-positional leaders among these two groups of participants.

Erica describes power as group energy as it is understood by the group of participants who agree that they have power if it is described in this way.

I’m not into power at all. And that’s one of the things that I find hard. I have to say two things about power. The first thing is I don’t want personal power for myself. We’re operating on a model where all the decisions are made as a group and I don’t try to make any decisions that are significant for us as a group by myself. I’d never even consider doing that. In fact even on small decisions it can be quite debilitating sometimes. So I think that’s empowering in itself and the way we’ve operated as a group, if you made a study of our group, you would find that people who were into power wouldn’t understand how it’s all happening because everybody has a part of the power and they are all operating out here. It almost looks like it’s autonomous but it’s not because the whole group is interconnected and we’re all into sharing the power and that’s really what we’re on about. And we think that’s why it’s hard for us to be effective with ordinary organisations because if you operate on that model you basically don’t get anywhere. Because you have to operate on the model that’s operating within the organisation you’re relating with and that’s why I believe you see women who are feminists who get into these leadership jobs and the only way they can survive is to start operating like all the men operate otherwise they can’t survive. So if you go and start operating on a power sharing basis you just get obliterated. (Erica)

Kiri’s belief that ‘an individual has power in a very limited way’ and ‘it is a collection of people going in the same direction that have power’ is shared by this group of participants. The sentiments expressed by Holly are also representative of this group of participants:

Yeah, it’s a different kind of power isn’t it? We all have power in the group; that’s the good bit about it I think. I’m a bit uncomfortable with associating power with the kind of leadership that happens in the group, yes. It’s very much wanting to exercise power from behind. Yeah. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I guess it’s the dislike about ‘power over’, that stuff; not wanting that. It’s very much a sense of standing back more than anything else and allowing the process to - I guess the power comes from taking the ego out of it. That’s what it is. It’s when you can take your ego out of it then the leadership is shared and everyone can be the leader. It’s very interesting because we actually had an incident within the group in the last few years where there was one woman who had an ego problem actually. That was it; it was all ego stuff. She ended up resigning after doing a fair bit of damage. She excluded herself. It was very interesting. It was like an ethic had come about in the group and she was not able to be part of it or accept it. (Holly)

The one fifth of participants, both designated leaders and non-positional leaders who see themselves as having personal power contrast this power to positional power or power that could have an impact on the wider community. Eve makes this distinction:

Yes, I do have power. It is very much an individual thing, though. I’ve got personal power over what I do and what I don’t do. And what I do try to influence and what I don’t waste my time on. In a wider sense I don’t think I have a lot of power in the wider community. (Eve)

Lala describes her personal power as being:

in terms of who I am and the questions that I have and my concerns and my ability to keep searching and my sickness which is a strength in terms of people respecting you for your capacity to keep going in the face of adversity. (Lala)

For the participants who describe the power they possess as personal power, their power is not dependent on what happens in the group. As Ita explains:

Yes I do have power. I have personal power. And I’m listened to. We are all listened to. There are times when I don’t have personal power, but that’s not anything to do with the group. That’s to do with me and the energy I am able to put into INT, my job, myself at any given time. (Ita)

The personal power described by the participants is not a power to be wielded in a public and domineering manner. Jocelyn describes it as power exercised ‘two steps from behind’:

Power was a word that we didn’t use in the past. Power is a word that I’m very comfortable with now. I was brought up to exercise power two steps from behind. I can remember one of my grandmothers saying ‘Jocelyn, be as clever a you like but don’t show it’. That was the word of wisdom and the state of knowledge at the time. And I’ve probably observed enough of that to get me credibility to move beyond it. Because I didn’t always walk just two steps behind at all, not at all. But I think you have to build up your credibility before you can use your idiosyncratic credits then to do other things. So that is probably how I use power. I’ve never stopped to wonder whether I was powerful; I’ve just moved powerfully I think. (Jocelyn)

Ella emphasises the importance of the collaborative structures of the organisation acting as a curb to the misuse of personal power:

Do I associate power with the leadership I exercise? I think the potential for power is there. I guess there is to the extent that when things go wrong people call you and ask what you think; so there is the potential to influence other people’s views about things because they are seeking your opinion. So that is power. I don’t feel uncomfortable particularly about that because I tend to think that I don’t abuse power and there are enough safeguards in the organisation for that not to happen. So, yes, there is power involved. The controls in the organisation aren’t restrictive; they are just a cautionary safeguard against the abuse of power. We are still very concerned about that ... But some people inherently have more power than others and that’s where the collaborative structures in DH and the decision making processes are important. And I think that as long as our structures are sound and our decision making processes and we are fairly vigilant about evaluating them when they’re working and reviewing them when they don’t work that there are fairly good safeguards against the abuse of power. (Ella)

Ten of the participants agree that they have power if power is described as organisational or role power. The following extracts from the interviews of some of these ten participants express what the participants meant by role power or organisational power:

Yes, definitely I have power; I am quite powerful, powerful because of my position, powerful because of the work that I do with women, powerful because of the history I’ve had with organisations. I think I’m quite powerful in the way I present that at times too. So, sometimes I present that in ways that if I’m very strong about something I’ll use that power. Often I feel that I’m not powerful enough when I come across structures that I can’t impact on. (Cara)

I have been conscious of power a number of times in my work. I’ve been conscious of it in terms of if I blow this the price of it will be profound not only in millions of dollars but in people’s lives and that sort of thing and if I mishandle this negotiation or whatever. I’m very conscious of it then. I’ve also been conscious of it when it’s been intimated to me that it could be used for my benefit, usually by the opposition or by the force of the opposition and it makes me realise how frightened they are or how powerful they perceive me to be although I can’t see what it is - where the power is - I must have it somewhere. (Ria)

When you are in a position of leadership you do have power, you do have the authorisation, particularly in elected leadership, people put you there. People put you there, they have authorised you, so that’s a power and at its best it’s a people power. But leaders aren’t the only ones who have power so what’s the best power role to adopt if you want to influence people? (Nora)

I really think everyone has a certain amount of power. And certainly being elected to a role like this gives you a certain power, however limited it is, and so it’s probably about finding where you can exercise that appropriately for the kinds of ends or goals of the group and to somehow bring to realisation the goals and the vision and the projects if you like that the group is on about. (Magda)

About one quarter of the participants say that power is a negative concept for them and that they don’t relate to it at all. Many of the participants feel uncomfortable using the term power to describe their exercise of leadership because of its overtones of domination and control. Fay explains her discomfort with the term:

Do I think of myself as someone with power? That’s a really difficult question because I have often been told by other people that I have power but I’m not conscious of it. I’ve often been told that I can influence other people but that notion makes me feel uncomfortable to tell you the truth. I really don’t like the thought of influencing people unduly. I’d rather them come to the conclusion themselves than to just feel influenced by another person because I feel that maybe they could just as easily be influenced by someone else in another direction. I do feel a bit uncomfortable about that but I’ve been in a bit of trouble in past organisations in past jobs and been accused of having a lot of influence over other people in some situations. And I’ve never seen that. I’ve just seen a common commitment to things. (Fay)

Some of the participants who reject power totally as a negative concept do so because of its association with men who have power. Agatha explains this position:

But power is not a very nice word; power to me is a dominating word and I wouldn’t like to dominate anybody. I’d like to persuade them and encourage them but not dominate. I suppose we associate it with men who have power and when men have power they use it against women and I also associate corruption with power because they are in a position to do devious things; yes, that must be it. (Agatha)

Only one of the 57 participants could recall an incident where people who exercised leadership in the research organisations had been involved in a struggle for power in the organisation. The other participants had not experienced or observed any jockeying for power among the leadership of their organisations.

Whether the participants understand power as group energy, as connective power, as personal power or as organisational power they are wary about claiming power if it is tainted by any suggestion of domination or control or ego. The few participants that reject the concept of power as negative reject it because they feel it is irretrievably tainted with such overtones. Power is understood by the participants to be an energy, a capacity to influence that is generated in the interactions of the group and for the purpose of achieving the goals of the group. There is a very strong belief among the participants that power as energy or capacity to influence is never to be used for personal aggrandisement but only to bring about social or organisational change which will create greater equity and opportunity for their constituencies.

7.6 Some Recurring Themes

Participants’ were asked questions about what other organisations could learn from the practice of leadership in their own organisation and about how they would describe their leadership role. They were also asked if they would like to make any general comments about their experience of women’s leadership. A number of recurring themes emerged from the participants’ responses to these questions and from their reflections on their experiences of women’s leadership. A summary of these themes as developed by the researcher after immersion in the texts and memo writing and of the relative importance attached to these themes by participants is found in Table 7.3. Again, strong, moderate or weak support for a position was determined by the researcher in terms of the number of sentences given to talking about the position in NUDIST as well as by the number of participants who adopted the position.

Table 7.3 Summary of recurring themes in the participants’ experience of leadership in the research organisations and the importance attached to those themes by participants

Recurring themes

Importance attached to those themes by participants

Collaboration is essential


Women in community-profit organisations are good at leadership


People matter


It’s easier to focus on organisational mission with fewer bureaucratic constraints


Women’s leadership needs to be supported because of obstacles women continue to face


Women are uncomfortable with the prevailing understanding and practice of leadership


It is unnecessary and unhelpful to adopt a masculine leadership style


Ego is not central to women’s leadership


Women’s leadership is evolving


Leadership is for social transformation


Women enjoy the experience of leadership


Key: *** strong support

** moderate support

* weak support

Over and over again the participants emphasised the value of collaborative leadership, especially participative decision making, and its centrality in women’s community-profit organisations. Ria emphasises that women’s choice of collaborative leadership is not because women are soft and afraid of conflict but because it is the best option for effective leadership:

I take no ‘crap’ from other women! That’s been my experience. I come from a long line of Irish matriarchs and if a push and a shove will get you there well we’ll do that; and if you’ve got to negotiate then we’ll do that too. Why I’m so impressed with this whole process [collaboration] is that not only is it so successful, you end up with people being good friends and caring about each other, but you also end up with a good outcome. I do it because it’s effective and I don’t think women take dominance from other women when they might think there’s not much you can do about it from a man. (Ria)

Many of the participants agreed with Ella who said:

I guess the collaborative style of leadership in DH is one that could be applied across the board. And I think globally. I think for me it’s the way things should be done no matter what the size of the organisation. And I guess I’d be the first to say that it’s harder work and it takes more time but the benefit, the outcomes are worth it. No one gets left behind and the quality of service you deliver is by far better. (Ella)

Una expresses a common view of the participants that in their experience women leaders in community-profit organisations attach great importance to participative decision making:

I think that women as a whole seem to know more of the dynamics of the group, they seem to know where they might be if there’s a trouble spot brewing, the potential for a sore with someone to fester ... I would tend to think that women are a lot more aware of what’s happening that way, so that when decisions are made they are a little bit more effective because views are being brought up and expressed more openly rather than people not speaking about the issue. I think women might have helped get involved in something so that when a decision is made it is made from a very clear point where everyone feels they’ve been heard and you haven’t got some people going away and feeling that they really didn’t get a chance to say what they wanted to say. And therefore they’re not really behind the decision made. (Una)

A second recurring theme in the participants’ reflection on their experience of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations is that they believe women in such organisations are good leaders and their leadership is better than men’s leadership or than women’s leadership in mainstream management. The experience of the participants is that women leaders in community-profit organisations are better listeners, are better with group processes, are more accountable and are more supportive of other people in the organisation and show that they respect and value them. Ella sums up this perception:

Women’s leadership is very different from men’s. Women have a very different style. The best women leaders are superior to the best male leaders in my experience because they have a capacity to generally value people and take them with them in a way and ... I don’t know what it is that distinguishes them. I guess there is a concern for the emotional aspects of a process and not just the outcomes. That means that the process and the outcomes will be different. I think women who exercise leadership in mainstream management roles are constrained by the structures, inevitably. (Ella)

The emphasis on knowing, valuing and supporting people and recognising their leadership potential is a third recurring theme in the participants’ experience of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations. Beryl describes her experience of this aspect of women’s leadership:

The best resource, it’s so old hat, the best resource is the people and if you lead them and work with them then ...I worked in a bank and the leadership style was autocratic and I think to adopt our collaborative style to adopt our strong approach of the community here would have been better. We like to have a meal together, morning tea , I think that’s important and we function at a level of knowing about each other in lots of ways. So we know the person as well as the role. I know the person who is doing the job and what difficulties they face and what they’re really good at so when stuff comes through I know where to direct it most appropriately. Knowing your human resources, that’s what it’s about. Knowing who works with you. (Beryl)

The participants’ experience is that people are valued in their organisations. For example, Rhoda says:

Everyone here that’s involved feels like a big family and they know they can if they’re upset they can say it. Mostly they won’t be taken the wrong way. And if they’re angry with someone they let it out, they don’t have to sit on it and just bottle it up. People’s emotional thing is validated - their needs and expression of their needs I suppose. (Rhoda)

Ella reflects the position of many of the participants who believe that valuing people is ‘part of the end in itself’:

It’s much more responsive, it’s much more creative, it utilises everybody’s ideas and people are valued in the process, people’s contributions are valued in the process, you get to look at things in different ways, people, clients - it’s a more equal thing. People, the clients, the workers, the volunteers are valued. ...And in doing so I don’t think the outcome is necessarily compromised, especially when you compare something like DH to Family Services or Social Services which are massive bureaucracies that I’ve worked in and schools that operate very bureaucratically. This is a much more supportive organisation generally. I think people generally have a better time, have a better experience of the world through these organisations and feel better about themselves and produce a better quality of service because of it. (Ella)

Because many of the participants have experienced or are experiencing in their paid employment leadership in bureaucratic organisations, they are in a good position to draw comparisons between their experiences of leadership in those organisations and their experiences of leadership in women’s community-profit organisations that are on the margins. A significant difference for them is that it is easier to focus on the organisation’s mission when there are fewer bureaucratic constraints and this is another recurring theme in the participants’ experience of leadership in their organisations.

For example, in commenting on the bureaucratic organisation in which she had paid employment Kay said:

They could learn from ENV to be clear about what their aims are and not get so caught up in the steps along the way. I see such a lot of concentration on minor issues instead of being focused on the patient’s needs. There’s a lot of energy spent on irrelevant and non-patient focused decisions. We did a survey recently at work where there was a computer logging of the tasks you did and the results were that 33 per cent of our time was spent documenting or liaising with other levels of staff on the computer. That’s a large chunk of your day. It would be better if the time was spent with your patients. (Kay)

Grace describes the way in which bureaucratic organisations that collaborate with PIV view it from a bureaucratic perspective and she notes the potential threat to PIV’s organisational mission as it becomes larger:

I think they would see us as really aware people in touch with the community, trying to respond to needs with no intention of building ourselves up. We’re simply there to enable people. I think they are caught up in a lot of red tape which restricts people. We try to do the opposite I think. That’s what makes us the centre that perhaps others in government services envy, because as centres grow they become constrained by their leadership. And that is one of our problems. As we get bigger can we remain as a centre that is for people? That’s our concern with the government grant. We are going to be more and more accountable. We can’t continue without that government help, but at our meeting the other day we were saying that we need to keep as simple as possible, but not naive. We need to be certainly accountable but in the simplest way possible to enable us to be flexible. (Grace)

Eve’s experience in bureaucratic organisations leads her to conclude that

The expectations are a lot more hierarchical in the way that you are meant to cooperate; you don’t have the freedom to be able to be more inclusive or to be able to consult widely with people. Also in bureaucracies these days the performance standards being set are very much individual directed and not so much set over the outcomes of the group of people you manage. It’s what you have actually done and achieved yourself, not what the whole group or branch has achieved. (Eve)

The majority of the participants felt that bureaucratic structures and processes threatened the two things that were most valued in their organisations - affirming and supporting the contribution of all those involved in the organisation and achieving the purposes for which the organisation existed. The threat of bureaucratisation which accompanies greater demands for accountability for funding in the women’s community-profit organisations in this research was countered by an ongoing commitment to and development of those collaborative and participative processes which would best achieve the purposes of the organisations.

Another recurring theme in the participants’ experience of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations is that women’s leadership needs to be supported because of the obstacles women continue to face. The participants’ experience of these obstacles is very personal and this theme emerges in the data through very concrete stories of difficulties faced.

For example, Ada’s experience of the obstacles to women exercising leadership is situated in the very masculine context of her paid, professional job in the film and video industry where she sees women such as herself as disadvantaged.

I wouldn’t exactly describe it as trailblazing but I could see how it could be described like that. When we are actually having meetings it doesn’t feel like that. I certainly think there are some excellent film makers in Brisbane and excellent male film makers as well but, maybe I’m just bitter, I don’t know, but it does seem that they have it a lot easier, especially if they want to become camera operators or sound technicians or the more demanding roles. If you want to become a production assistant it’s a lot easier if you are a woman, but to actually be on the creative team is very hard. You really have to prove that you can carry the camera and carry the typewriter and all that sort of stuff. And you shouldn’t have to. There are weedy looking men around and they don’t have to prove anything. If women want to express their creativity through film they are being disadvantaged because of their physical status. All it means is that if there are ten boxes to move a women might have to do ten trips whereas a man might only do five, but they still get moved. But can you imagine what the film Piano would have been like if a man had directed it? It would have been a completely different film. And that’s not to say it would have been a bad film; it just would have been a different film. I think it’s really important that we get to see what the women’s idea is as well. Getting back to the trailblazing, I guess those hacking a trail out of the forest don’t see much except the branches and the scratches they are getting, and it’s just the vision of where they are going that makes the pain worthwhile. (Ada)

One of the older participants emphasises the obstacles facing older women who aspire to leadership but notes that her daughter also faces these obstacles:

Well the only thing is repeating what I said before, that it has been difficult for women to reach leadership positions in any mixed organisation with some notable exceptions of course. But I do think women achieve leadership positions with greater difficulty than men, particularly if they’re in the age group say over 55 or 60. They haven’t been expected to be the leaders. It’s always been the man leading and the woman can be the secretary. They grew up in that more subservient role and you should look at how they have had to fight to move out of that subservient role into the leadership role. Also important is the reaction of some men to women in the leadership role. My daughter has just started taking a different track in her career, enrolling in a graduate diploma in management, and when she discussed this at work where she’s been in administration she had a couple of quite sarcastic remarks as much as to say not another woman trying to do that. I think that’s one of the things about leadership; there are many men with open minds to accept women as people but there are many men who think women can’t be quite as powerful in a leadership position. (Amy)

The participants experience a variety of obstacles to their exercise of leadership. For Jade the tension between work and home commitments is an obstacle.

The other thing that is difficult for women too, and I suppose I have some of this, and that’s that are you a mother or are you a career woman? There’s always this draw even though you have the other half who’s very helpful, there’s this draw and it’s a female thing I think, always this I should be home, I should be doing this or I can’t do this at work until the kids get to that point and they can drive and work themselves and there’s always that stress level - not a stress level but a tearing apart of the soul. So I think in that respect I think it’s that pull that’s always there. (Jade)

Eve identifies the need for women to prove themselves as leaders as a very real obstacle.

I think that lots of women who are in management roles do take on lots more than they ought to or lots more than their male counterparts and they’re in danger of burning out. I think that lots of women like to continue to have their way of doing things and their commitments that they’ve been involved in on top of their job; that might be their children and their family or it might be the volunteer organisations that they keep in touch with or it might just be their general hobbies. The other thing that has been an impact also has been lots of pressure on women in higher positions to do additional work because of the agenda; being the woman that sits on the selection panel or being the token woman on the committee. There is a burden that comes with being a woman in a leadership position. (Eve)

Agnes tells a story from her experience about the entrenched social expectations women working as volunteers in organisations encounter in trying to exercise leadership:

It was coming up Christmas and we wanted to organise a Christmas function in our group. My husband was working at an old car place at Acacia Ridge and there were hundreds of men over there and he was helping to organise a night for the men. This particular night we went to bed and I asked him if they’d decided where they were going for the function. Oh yeah he said, we said how about we go to Broadbeach on the Gold Coast, such a time Saturday night suit you? Okay done! As for the women - oh I don’t know if I can get over there, it depends if my husband’s got the car, what night did you say? He usually goes for such and such a thing on Saturday night. I’ll have to get a babysitter. It’s a bit more than I can afford. Talk about hassles! But the men - they just go. It’s interesting that the men didn’t say they’d have to check with their wives or get a babysitter. Gee that makes me mad. The women had all these hassles to get out, they had to fit in with somebody else. (Agnes)

Erica points out that even those things that were once seen as stepping stones to women’s exercise of leadership have become obstacles. She uses the merit system as an example:

If you’re talking about leadership and getting women into positions of leadership and what we have to do to bring about change, I don’t think the merit system is going to help because I don’t believe that it’s meritorious. While that’s been a path that we wanted to go down to get women into positions of leadership, we couldn’t see what the hassles were going to be, although some people could. Basically you’re just not going to change the attitudes of all those people who are making the meritorious decisions. They are very embedded and it doesn’t matter whether you talk about women or racism or whatever, people have got preconceived ideas and you’re just not going to change those. ... The problem with merit is that it is based on the assumption that women operate in the same way as men and they don’t. And all the meritorious categories are male-defined. It doesn’t matter who’s had an input into them. Women who succeed under the merit system are women whose careers have taken them in a way that they have had to operate in terms of the male system. (Erica)

Because of the variety of obstacles that the participants themselves had experienced in exercising leadership and that they had observed in their work in both community-profit and other organisations and because of their conviction that women in community-profit organisations are exercising leadership in a way that others could learn from, they believe that such leadership needs to be supported. In particular the participants believe that women need to support each other in the exercise of leadership.

Another recurring theme which emerges in the data is the participants’ discomfort with the prevailing understanding and practice of leadership. This theme reinforces the participants’ unwillingness to see themselves as leaders within the dominant models of leadership.

Fay’s discomfort is typical of many of the participants. In commenting on women’s leadership she says:

I suspect that women’s leadership in some organisations might be very little different to men’s leadership; women who are coming from a fairly authoritarian perspective anyway. I don’t know that their leadership would be very different to men’s. I guess whether women even see themselves as leaders - leadership to me seems almost a male concept, so whether women even feel comfortable with that term. (Fay)

Several of the participants emphasised that their understanding of leadership was not about breaking through a glass ceiling or following a linear career path. Angela was very emphatic in her comment:

For me, leadership, power, they can be positive or negative. You can lead without being in a leadership role. I like to think of leadership as service; it’s not about power, but it’s about service, helping people. Lead by example is the strongest image for me. I don’t ask anyone to do something that I’m not prepared to do for myself. (Angela)

Eleanor struggled to find words to express her understanding of women’s leadership as something significantly different from the prevailing understanding:

With women it’s not a linear approach to leadership either horizontally or vertically. It’s a focus on task that ends up being the chaos area of physics. So whereas they are not thinking about a career path either in something like the public service or even non-profit organisations, they’re very hard to focus, so it may not even be with the peace organisation that the peace principles infiltrate. It’s even something more generic than that I think. It’s a task-service approach. So whereas I don’t believe in top-down management and I don’t necessarily believe in everyone sitting around a table and having a collective approach, I believe there is a middle ground there which I call my ‘Ying- Yang’ approach, when you need an element of both of these. (Eleanor)

Magda’s description of the way in which members of her organisation are trying to envisage new ways of exercising leadership reflects the way in which the discomfort participants feel with the prevailing masculine models of leadership is often expressed in the search for something new:

A number of our members have begun to think about the whole issue of leadership from a new perspective or to imagine, to begin to try to name something that is different from patriarchal kinds of models if you like, or those shaped by the dominant patriarchal culture and to consciously try out new possibilities and a lot of them would be around adult-adult relationships as distinct from mother-child or superior-inferior relationships. And the whole thing of participation, involvement of people in decisions that affect their lives and even the whole area of shared leadership. ... So you have a whole different model there of people interrelating. It’s much more the idea of engaging oneself with others, each person committing herself to the group in a certain way on the basis of shared needs - something like that - organic leadership which talks more about everybody in the whole group taking responsibility in ways for how the group is led or what direction it takes. (Magda)

Closely related to the discomfort with prevailing understandings of leadership are two other recurring themes - a negative response to those who adopt a masculine leadership style in order to exercise leadership effectively and a rejection of the ego dimension of leadership that participants identify as central to the prevailing understanding of leadership. For example, Bea believes that in general most women do not see leadership in terms of force and power, except for women in politics who have adopted a masculine style of leadership and she says:

I don’t find that particularly good. It means that they have lost contact with who they are supposed to be helping and the power has become more important. (Bea)

Jade, like many of the participants, believes women have other options open to them in exercising leadership other than adopting male leadership styles:

Well, if we look at commercial for instance, business, sometimes I think that women try to play a man’s role, to be hard and tough. I think there’s better ways of doing that. I think women have to work on doing that. And intuition, we don’t work on intuition enough. It’s a great skill women have, and we’ve really got to learn to tap into that more I think and okay you might sound a bit strange when you say this in a mixed board room but hey that clicks something over here then it comes around. So I think we need to look into our intuition a bit more, we need to step out of that male aggressive role because all we’re trying to do is compete in the same world and I don’t think we need to do that. And I’m just thinking of a couple of women I know who run reasonably successful businesses and their image to me is very controlling, ‘I’m the boss, you will do what you’re told’ and that just doesn’t work. (Jade)

Celia gives advice to women in leadership that resonates with the comments of all the participants:

I would say to women leaders, and to women who aspire to be leaders, do it as women and don’t try to be one of the boys. Be ever mindful of the issues in women’s lives and not just in their organisational roles and work roles, but all the things that make up women’s lives. I think women in leadership roles need to be ever mindful of the other responsibilities that women have and how that impacts on their work place. (Celia)

One of the reasons for such a negative response to women who adopt a masculine leadership style is the rejection by the participants of what they call the ego component of masculine leadership styles. Angela expresses the common view among the participants that women lead differently from men and she explains the main difference this way:

I believe very strongly that far too often men let their egos get in the way of their leadership and I really don’t think that women do that. (Angela)

Yetta agrees that this is one of the main differences between men’s leadership and women’s leadership:

I think one of the main differences is to do with ego. That women are less likely to attach their own personal ego to the processes that are going on so that in NEC it is an amazing organisation. I am constantly amazed at how amicable decisions can be, how little conflict occurs, how little there is of people attaching themselves to an outcome personally. In recent times I’ve become involved in another cooperative where there are a number of men who have come into it new and don’t know about the cooperative process but who think they have all the answers and their egos are all bound up in the process and there’s a lack of listening. ... I think it’s the ability to listen and how not to bind your ego up in the exercise of power - that’s my opinion anyway. But I can see that men lead. It’s rare to have a man (and they do exist because I’ve seen them) but who can lead in a way that gets the most out of the people who he is leading. Most men lead in a bludgeonly sort of a fashion and that is so ineffective in achieving good things with people. (Yetta)

Kiri notes some differences in the motives of the men who have recently become part of one of ENV’s projects:

I don’t think that the men coming into the group have changed the way we operate because our way of operating was so established by the time they joined that they just went along with it after an initial period of bewilderment. ... Most of the guys are there because it is meeting their own needs ... but whether it’s the same drive that I feel about forming community spirit, well that’s different. (Kiri)

Eve sees evidence of the lack of ego in the leadership of RAP in the efforts made to seek feedback and reflect of it:

I suppose one comment is that male leaders I think try to rationalise away any criticism of how they operate whereas women, and especially I know it’s true of us in RAP, try to take on board any criticism of how we operate and see how we can best respond to it. In fact we’ve spent a lot of time trying to deal with the negative and haven’t just been basking in the glory of the positive. Women can actually take the criticism and build on that and find ways to be a better leader. I think the other thing we’re good at doing is getting feedback whether it’s positive or negative. We actually ask for feedback. (Eve)

The lack of ego was not only a recurring theme in the participants’ responses to questions, it was also evident in their own demeanour and in their own stories of leadership. The participants’ emphasis on developing collaborative and participative processes which best achieve the purposes of the organisation (usually purposes under the broad heading of social transformation) is totally consonant with a leadership that does not focus on the leader but on the leadership relationship and its purpose . Related to the recurring theme of ego not being central to women’s leadership was the theme of social transformation being the focus of leadership and the theme of women enjoying their experiences of leadership in community-profit organisations.

A story told by Holly encapsulates many of the recurring themes that characterise the participants’ understanding of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations and illustrates, in particular, the theme that women’s distinctive understanding of leadership is evolving in the experiences of leadership in these organisations.

I found it a very, very interesting experience going to the national meeting. There were about 50 women there and they had come from every state and there were a lot of older women there. There were women in their 80s. They were so wonderful to meet and so powerful. And there was just this wonderful sense of this history in the organisation. Then there were the middle aged and younger women coming up as well. And, not all, but some of the older women were used to doing things in a very formalised way. You could see that the new executive were wanting to introduce a different kind of culture there. And so on the first night the women who were taking over the national leadership and had organised the program had various activities which were really ‘getting to know you’ activities and asking women to tell their stories and so on and introduced singing and things like that. And some of the older women were saying ‘This is a waste of time! What are we doing this for? We’ve got business to do! Where’s our agenda?’ And then when it came to the AGM there were some proposed amendments to the Constitution which would have formalised even more some of this cultural change. Some of the women who opposed that became very legalistic about it and they had the old Constitution with them and the proposed amendments and they’d gone through it and they were lobbying people in the breaks and after the meetings and so on. And the AGM itself was quite horrendous, very dramatic. At one stage, I’ll call them the old brigade, actually defeated the amendments put up by the incoming executive. And so the incoming executive said ‘We’ll have to resign. We can’t do this if we don’t have your support.’ It was a very dramatic meeting. I thought the woman who chaired it did a wonderful job. We actually had to reconvene some of it the next day. I was fascinated by looking at that because it seemed to me that there was a culture change going on as a new generation of women who were in their 40s, I mean they’re not really young women, were bringing in a more what some of us who are feminists would see as a woman culture, as a different model of organisation and wanting it to be more collaborative and less formalised. I think the opposition to it was really around the fear of losing control. I think that some of those older women had invested of themselves in this organisation over many many years so it was very meaningful to them. And I think that things were being done a bit differently. I think that was what it was about. The culture change was eventually accepted. The motions were passed in the end. It was very, very interesting because the objections to the proposed amendments were carried and then you could see that the women who opposed them were quite shocked to see what they had done. They had actually won the day. And they began to realise what the consequences were; how divisive this was and so on. It had to be reconvened the next day so people could sleep on it a bit. There was a moment where - this is indicative of a new culture - it was towards the AGM and we were seeing what had happened and a couple of other women and I went outside the room and said ‘We’ve got to do something about this. We’ve got to do something with healing here. We’ve got to do something with energy here’. So we spoke to the chairperson and she agreed and we actually got everyone to stand in a circle and hold hands. And so that is the new kind of culture and way of dealing with it. I can’t remember the actual details of what we did then. And then there were a couple of other bits of business that had to be conducted after that. One of the issues that was so divisive was around having people represent the organisation being elected to the positions where they’d represent the organisation internationally at the international executive. And what happened was that there was someone who was up for re-election as the international representative who wasn’t at the meeting, but she had been this for many years and she was one of the old stalwarts. But the way it came about is connected with funding and how these organisations get funded. Often the work is taken on by women who’ve got private means. And this woman had means to travel. And so it had fallen to her to do this. And one of the main issues of the new group coming in was that these had to be open for everyone. It couldn’t carry on like that. And there had to be funds found to fund women to do this so it could be anyone who nominated for these positions. What we actually found was that there were two positions; so that it could be healed and the older woman could be endorsed but we could bring in another woman who was funded. And that was strongly supported. In fact there were women who got up from the floor and said ‘I commit this amount of money to create a fund for this person to go’. The reason why this could all happen was because all the women there, including the ones who were having the fight were also terribly concerned about having harmonious relationships overall in the group, about achieving harmony. I think that’s a strong value - this is the organisation some of whose leading lights have been leaders in the conflict resolution business! There were a lot of healing sorts of statements after that and endorsement of the new national executive. (Holly)

7.7 Conclusion

This chapter has presented the research findings which illuminate the understandings that the participants attach to their exercise of leadership in community-profit organisations. The participants’ images of leadership, their recipes for effective leadership, their reflections on the relationship between designated leaders and non-positional leaders, their understanding of power and the recurring themes that emerge as they reflect on their experience of leadership in community-profit organisations provide an understanding of leadership that can be summed up by the words mutual relationship,collaboration,responsibility,intentionality and purpose . The next chapter presents the research findings on the participants’ experiences and practice of leadership in their organisations.

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