Kicking Ass in a Corset: Jane Austen’s Six Principles for Feminist Leadership

What can organizational leaders in business, education and government learn from an unemployed unmarried woman living in patriarchal misogynistic rural England in the 18th Century? As it turns out, a great deal.

I have witnessed this firsthand as a professor and the director of an Educational Leadership doctoral program. My life in academia has coincided with my lifelong fascination with Jane Austen’s heroines—and specifically their internal fortitude, strength and quiet innate leadership in the face of constricting circumstances.

The “corset” becomes an apt metaphor to describe the constrictions educational leaders and other leaders are facing these days, finding it very difficult to “breathe” as they are pushed, prodded and squeezed by seemingly intractable forces beyond their control. Research, field experience, teaching and consulting have taught me that those leaders who are internally referenced with the emotionally intelligent characteristics of primal leadership end up thriving in any environment no matter how dissonant. While I often point to role models in education and business in my masters and doctoral level courses, I have found myself using, to great success, Austen heroines to describe and explain the characteristics of internally-referenced primal leadership in the face of restrictive environments.

These are Jane Austen’s Six Principles of Internally-Referenced Leadership.

Jane Austen’s First Principle of Feminist Leadership: Like Elizabeth Bennet, value yourself based on your own internal criteria irrespective of socially constructed external norms, measurement and opinion.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” From the very first line in Pride and Prejudice, Austen suggests that most of what we consider universal truths are merely socially-constructed values “well fixed” in the minds of those around us. Indeed, Pat Rogers, editor of the Cambridge Edition, indicates that this most famous line “parodies the use of generalized assertions at the start of moralistic essays.” Austen empowers us to disregard a seemingly entrenched social norm and value by turning it on its head.

Jane Austen’s much-beloved and irrepressible heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, rejects many of those social norms, preferring her own independent assessment of value and worth. There is no better depiction of the discrepancy between how society values Bennet and how she values herself than her rejections to the first two marriage proposals she receives. The first rejection is to her father’s cousin and heir to Longbourn, clergyman William Collins. Given Elizabeth’s unfortunate circumstances and lack of a real dowry, Collins is dumbfounded and does not believe her rejection.

You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses are merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these:–It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into farther consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me.

Irrespective of her lack of value on the conventional marriage market and Collins’ prospects as heir, Bennet rejects him based on the fact that her “feelings in every respect forbid it.” While Collins may have been a respectable match, I am sure Bennet’s cohorts might excuse her rejection based on the fact that he is a pompous, obsequious idiot.

That being said, from a social value perspective, it is difficult to justify her rejection of Mr. Darcy’s first proposal. Darcy is tall, handsome, intelligent—and the owner of the great estate of Pemberly. With less sensitivity than Collins, his first proposal is laced with insults, pointing out Bennet’s lack of value on the marriage market.

Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?

Again, Bennet makes it very clear that the societal view of a Darcy proposal is not necessarily and never was “natural and just” to her.

From the very beginning, from the first moment…of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others…I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could every be prevailed on to marry.

While she was ahead of her time and not formally heading an organization, Elizabeth Bennet embodies the leadership principle of valuing oneself based on internal criteria. In The Fifteen Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success, co-authors Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman and Kaley Warner Klemp describe how effective leaders dealing with difficult situations “commit to being the source of [their] approval, control, and security” rather than “living from the belief that…approval, control, and security come from the outside – from people, circumstances, and conditions.” Similarly, Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen agrees that successful leaders “define what [they] stand for” and are “guided by a clear sense of purpose.”

Guided by a sense of purpose and value, Sen. Elizabeth Warren might be considered a modern-day Elizabeth Bennet in internally sourcing her own approval and value. Warren worked under President Obama to help create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010; when he nominated her to be the secretary to head the new agency, she was strongly opposed by financial institutions and republican senators. Undaunted by the devaluing by the industry and congress, Warren valued herself and her ability enough to make change in spite of their rejection of her by running for the senate herself and sitting at the table with her most vocal critics.

Jane Austen’s Second Principle of Feminist Leadership: Like Elinor Dashwood, cultivate an internal capacity for resiliency and agency by adapting to change with a cool pragmatic head rather than as a passive victim of external circumstance.

In Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility, Austen offers the epitome of grace under pressure. Dashwood’s father has just passed away and their family’s grand estate is entailed to her half-brother John, who, influenced by his selfish wife, ignores his father’s deathbed request to improve the financial situation of his stepmother and half-sisters. Soon-to-be desperate, displaced and destitute, Dashwood’s mother wants to flee Norland Park as soon as they arrive—but cool and calm Elinor calms her mother down and convinces her otherwise.

So acutely did Mrs. Dashwood feel this ungracious behavior, and so earnestly did she despise her daughter-in-law for it, that, on the arrival of the latter, she would have quitted the house forever, had not the entreaty of her eldest girl induced her first to reflect on the propriety of going…Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart, her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.

While Dashwood experiences the same degree of sorrow and loss as her mother and sister Marianne, she does not permit those feeling to overtake her. With a calm detachment, she is able to accept and face their new reality and problem solve so that they can transition as effectively as possible. After all she overcomes throughout the course of the novel—the death of her father, moving from Norland Park, Willoughby’s betrayal, Marianne’s illeness—she still has a hard time letting herself go when things finally are stable. That is why it is so moving when she cries when Edward, extracted from Lucy Steele, comes to propose. Even then, however, right before his entrance, she recites her ubiquitous mantra: “I will be calm; I will be mistress of myself.”

This is a mantra that Harvard Business Review editor Diane L. Coutu would applaud. “Resilient people possess three defining characteristics,” she explained. “They cooly accept the harsh realities facing them. They find meaning in terrible times. And they have an uncanny ability to improvise, making do with whatever is at hand.” Similarly, Emotional Intelligence expert Daniel Goleman and his colleagues describe experts in Primal Leadership as having “emotional self-control [to] find ways to manage their disturbing emotions and impulses…[and to be] flexible in adapting to new challenges.”

Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, would appreciate Dashwood’s “Keep Calm and Carry On” demeanor. After the tragic death of her husband, she wrote a book about the importance of resiliency in one’s leadership roles both at work and home. “I don’t know anyone who has been handed only roses,” Sandberg writes in Option B. “We all encounter hardships. Some we see coming; others take us by surprise…The question is: When these things happen, what do we do next?”

Jane Austen’s Third Principle of Feminist Leadership: Like Anne Elliot, prefer internal work ethic and meritorious accomplishment rather than external entitlement and privilege.

Persuasion opens with Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch-Hall reading with “admiration and respect” his favorite book, the Baronetage, confirming his aristocratic heritage and exalted position because “vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character…[as he] considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy.” It is, therefore, shameful to him that his life of excessive greed since his wife died has caused him to have to rent out his great estate.

When his lawyer advises that they search for an admiral to rent because “many a noble fortune has been made during the war,” Sir Walter is horrified that his aristocratic estate might be occupied by a “sailor or soldier.” But his middle daughter, Anne Elliot, defends the military and those who serve.

The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow.

This early exchange illustrates the stark difference between the values of Elliot and her father. While he values entitlement and privilege, she values hard work and merit. In defending merit over privilege, the usually quiet and demure Elliot becomes quite passionate later in the novel when she chooses attending to an old school friend rather than attend to their cousin Lady Dalrymple, a viscountess. Anne insists on seeing her friend, Mrs. Smith, because of “past kindness” shown to her when her mother died and “present suffering” due to being a poor sickly widow. She does so much to her father’s disdain.

A poor widow, barely able to live, between thirty and forty—a mere Mrs. Smith, an every day Mrs. Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her, to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs. Smith, such a name!

The fact that Anne, unlike her father, looks beyond names, power, status and privilege to decide what is important fits with the research about women leaders—and not only their preference for merit but also the need for merit in order to insure their own advancement. According to Alice Eagly and Linda Carli’s Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders: “There are many innovations…that would facilitate women’s advancement in organizations…to ensure fairness, the evaluation of candidates for promotion should become less subjective than it has traditionally been. Promotions should be based on explicit, valid performance evaluations that limit the influence of decision makers’ conscious and unconscious biases.”

An example of a female leader who, like Elliot, values work ethic and meritorious achievement over status and privilege is Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College. When McCartney was a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she was named interim dean when the former dean resigned. In that post, she worked hard to improve and innovate the college. While she was not necessarily the most deserving choice to be named permanent dean, there were some on the Advisory Council who encouraged the president of Harvard at the time to appoint someone “flashier” with more “connections” and “name recognition.” Thankfully, he listened to those of us around the table who touted McCartney’s driving work ethic and incredible achievements in a short amount of time, and he appointed her dean. No one in that role has ever worked harder or accomplished more: The Boston Globe named her one of the thirty most innovative people in Massachusetts, and in 2013 she received the Harvard College Women’s Professional Achievement Award based on her exceptional leadership.

Jane Austen’s Fourth Principle of Feminist Leadership: Like Fanny Price, insist on staying true to an internal compass and sense of moral integrity, especially in the face of external pressure for dubious compromise.

Fanny Price is the moral compass of Mansfield Park and perhaps the Austen world. Price is described as a woman who is “firm as a rock in her own principles.” Although her own family is destitute, she rejects wealthy Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal much to disdain of her uncle and benefactor, Sir Thomas Bertram, who impliedly threatens to remove his support of her, sending her away from Mansfield Park. By the end of the novel, however, Bertram admires and respects Price’s ethical stance and appreciates that she values the courage of her convictions over her own comfort.

Management guru, Peter Drucker, would admire Price’s value-driven decisions, given that he asserts that one of the most important questions for a leader is “what are my values?” Price’s leadership in this regard is similar to the two Republican women senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who had the courage to vote “no” on a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Despite extreme pressure and sexist attacks, they stood firm based on principle—just like Fanny Price would.

Jane Austen’s Fifth Principle of Feminist Leadership: Like Catherine Morland, harness the power of childlike dreaming, curiosity and hope in a climate that can be disillusioning, distrustful and full of despair.

Austen seems to value heroines who are confident, resilient, and courageous; it is, therefore, surprising to consider how Catherine Morland fits with this auspicious group. The novel-loving young heroine seems a bit too naïve and overly romantic to be a proper Austen heroine, let alone an effective leader. But what Catherine brings to the Austen cannon and leadership repertoire is an ability to love—whether it is getting lost in novel or on a long walk, she becomes absorbed with a child-like enthusiasm that is infectious to those around her.

As Henry Tilney describes her:

But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible…And though the love of a hyacinth may be rather domestic, who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose…I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing…”

The Conscious Leadership Group would agree with Catherine’s love of flowers as being key to turn around an organizational culture; they believe that when effective leaders “value and encourage an atmosphere of play and joy within themselves and in their organizations, [they transform them into more] high-functioning and high-achieving” cultures. New York Times best selling life coach Martha Beck believes in loving flowers; she regularly urges her clients and readers to use love of nature, dance, movement, meditation and other forms of play to turn around their organizations and lives. “The end goal of all of this striving is to live joyfully,” she writes, “and that there are often more direct ways of achieving this than conforming to rigid standards set by social custom.”

Jane Austen’s Sixth Principle of Feminist Leadership:  Like Emma Woodhouse, develop an internal capacity to learn from mistakes rather than being told what to do.

When we first meet “handsome, clever, and rich” Emma Woodhouse, she thinks “a little too well of herself” for personal reflection and growth. In fact, Austen suggests this lack of humility and striving to do better was a “danger.” From this illusory perch of perfection and under the illusory guise of beneficence, Woodhouse tries to improve less fortunate people’s lives—but instead, ends up wreaking havoc.

One of the culminating moments of real transformation for Woodhouse is when she publicly mocks and insults poor Miss Bates at Box Hill. After Mr. Knightly reproaches her (“It was badly done, Indeed!”), self-assured, confident, seemingly all-knowing Woodhouse falls from her perch, and, for the first time, has nothing to say.

She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could concel. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates…Time did not compose her. As she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more. She never had been so depressed…Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.

This is a moment where Woodhouse transforms from an idealized image into a real human being with a real beating heart and real wet tears. She does not just hear what Knightley says, but she also internalizes his message through her own reflection and empathy with Bates. Because of this process where she truly learns that she with arrogance and haughtiness caused pain and is not as clever and perfect as she thought, Woodhouse is finally able to reflect, learn and grow.

Similarly, the most effective leaders “commit to growing in self-awareness…to regarding every interaction as an opportunity to learn” as opposed to committing to “…being right.” In fact, research shows that self awareness and learning agility are two of the four competencies that “trump all others” as predictors of success. The leader who learns with us rather than giving the sermon from above tends to garner more respect and create a culture of learning.

When Oprah Winfrey began her talk show, the Phil Donahue Show was the established leader in that field. Donahue was known to wander in the audience with a thick microphone, asking hard questions but elucidating his own insights on a kind of superior perch. Just as intelligent and engaged, Oprah had a different style; while she didn’t wander around the audience with a microphone, she really identified with the audience. Whether it was food or sex abuse or films or education or parenting, she opened about her own life, exposed her own vulnerabilities, displayed her own ignorance and revealed her own learning. She was a real person with a real beating heart and real tears—and her show ended up surpassing Donahue’s many times over.

Modern leaders, especially female ones, face many constraints—corsets—from an external environment that squeezes and suppresses and wants them to hold themselves in and be something they are not. What leadership experts talk about, however, is that in the face of this pressure, the best strategy is to double down—whether that means insisting on valuing oneself like Elizabeth Bennet, adapting from a state of inner calm like Elinor Dashwood, preferring hard work and merit like Anne Elliot, being true to a moral compass like Fanny Price, cultivating inner joy like Catherine Morland or truly learning from one’s mistakes like Emma Wo. (Or, perhaps, wrapping it all up into one canon like Jane Austen.)



Andrea Kayne is a faculty member at DePaul University College of Education since 2000 and Director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership who has taught and mentored graduate students, published articles and spoken to local and national conferences and media regarding educational leadership (or sometimes the lack thereof). She also developed a television series entitled A Visitor at Mansfield Park, adapted from Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, and gave a talk at the Austen Society of North America that inspired this post. She is the author of Oxford Messed Up.