Leadership for a Brave New World

If Hillary Clinton is elected President in November, we will experience something previously unknown: Women will be the chief executives of the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany —and the two most powerful players in global finance—the heads of the U.S. Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund.

What’s going on here? Has some deep cultural fault begun to shift?

Copyright Jenny Warburg
Copyright Jenny Warburg

We want to argue that it has. In these times of unimaginable diversity and rapid-fire change, the old model of top-down leadership is less desirable and less effective than a more collaborative style. Suddenly, new ways of teaching leadership are all the rage, at big companies like Google and on campus, from the Harvard Business School to Arizona State University. Most aim to help potential leaders learn to do what many women do exceptionally well: build coalitions, be open to new ideas, develop consensus across wide differences.

At ASU, one unit has developed its own special approach incorporating diversity, mindfulness and somatic education. Our goal is to train leaders and activists to throw aside the old cultural scripts for gender and to act with clarity, self-awareness and integrity. We help students develop the capacity to act in ways that are congruent with their beliefs—despite their fears and anxieties, despite the fact that many of the issues we face seem intractable,

Diversity is a strength in the US, at ASU and in its School of Social Transformation, but it makes our understanding of how to act more challenging. We have to be open to multiple strategies, styles of leadership and ways of communicating, and we need a broader activist/leadership toolkit. How do we build a new model of leadership and activism based on mutuality, reciprocity and respect? What human capacities do we need to build consensus across differences without muting the vibrancy of those differences? What would a model of leadership or activism mindful of diversity look like?

It takes courage to act in accordance with one’s values and principles and to be an effective leader in the face of bigotry and systems of oppression and the inequality and the suffering they cause. Humans are not abstract knowers or actors. We function in a world where a presidential candidate can say whatever misogynist or racist idea comes into his head, and it is posted instantly and circulated worldwide.

In the School of Social Transformation, we are developing a leadership program that combines the latest scholarship about diversity, justice and social change along with insights from neuroscience about the value of mindfulness and somatic practices for breaking old habits and creating new, more flexible strategies for thinking and acting. Because leadership is an embodied activity, we use the Feldenkrais® Awareness through Movement method to help participants become more aware of their internal physical sensations and how they connect to thoughts, feelings, sensations and movements. This attention to the ways they are embodied helps leaders learn how to be less reactive, more present and open to ideas and opinions other than their own.

We are now offering workshops, seminars and retreats that are designed for college campuses, corporations, government and advocacy organizations.


The literature on new types of leadership (transformational leadership, post-heroic leadership, ensemble leadership) tout characteristics that sound familiar to feminists: consensus building, collective and team-based approaches, non-hierarchal decision making, emotional intelligence and attention to relationships. The relational skills need for such leadership are the ones typically assigned to women by the dominant culture, but they do not give women aspiring to leadership positions an advantage. Professor Joyce Fletcher at Simmons College refers to this as the “paradox of gender.”

When women act in these more transformative ways, they are seen as acting like women and not like leaders. But when they act in ways consistent with cultural scripts for men, they are seen as aggressive, shrill, not likeable and therefore not someone to be followed. They are caught in a double bind.

We believe our approach to leadership can pave the way by helping students to understand the connection between body, mind, leadership and activism, to become more aware or mindful of their habitual reactions and to develop the capacity to be fully present during difficult conversations and disagreements.

Leadership training, we believe, must challenge the pre-existing dynamics of power and influence that operate in most organizations–even progressive ones—by helping men and women to act outside of the cultural scripts for gender with confidence, clarity and integrity.

About and

Mary Margaret Fonow is the founding director of ASU's School of Social Transformation and a professor of women and gender studies. Her research and teaching covers gender, work and organizations, transformational leadership, and cultural diversity. She has published widely on women's leadership and participation in social movements.
Richard Goldsand is a Guild-Certified Feldenkrais practitioner with 25 years of experience. He is a faculty associate in the ASU Department of Dance where he teaches the Feldenkrais method and in the School of Social Transformation where he co-teaches a course on Transformational Leadership and Embodied Activism with Mary Margaret Fonow.