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The Women's Leadership Industrial Complex

By Kerri Heffernan

The 2020 WRCRA Conference will include What Rugby Taught Me About Winning, a panel discussion with four accomplished women who are no strangers to leading. Inspired by a similar presentation given by a WRCRA-led panel at the July 2019 Super Series, the panelists will explore the ways rugby prepared them for the rigors of leadership, particularly in the workplace. Many of us have worked in industries that operate from a deficit model of women’s leadership, meaning when corporations are predominantly male, they assume women lack leadership skills. This is in contrast to an assets model which believes that women bring unique perspectives to leadership positions. That is if we can be heard.

In 2018, Bloomberg published the results of research on corporate communications in which they found that men spoke 92% of the time in a sample of 155,000 company conference calls. The researchers offered two possible reasons for this result: men far outnumbered women on the calls and “because men just talk more.”

Much of the chatter about women’s leadership seems to suggest that the problem with women’s leadership is women. We lack a fundamental understanding of business and sport culture, so we need to listen to experts. We should attend trainings about women’s leadership (put on by men), we should watch more TED talks, get another degree, enlist a mentor, buy a suit from Talbots, read more biographies of great men, get a firm handshake, play golf, and “lean in.” Above all we must accept that the overwhelmingly male organizations that deny women access and power aren’t the problem, women are problem, we simply lack the leadership gene.

Like many women, I don’t believe I lack leadership skills, but I am suspect of the business of leadership training and what is promoted as skillful leadership. Until very recently, I worked at Brown University, a hierarchical system in which employees are ranked one above the other and move through departments and centers in a linear path with all the arrows moving up or down. Throughout my life I’ve learned to follow the arrows, navigating hierarchies while doing my best to resist their potential to undermine relationships. I dutifully sat through meetings and mouthed the language of leadership that resonated within the university structure. However, in my day-to-day work with students, I operated in a very different organizational structure, one that valued networks, relationships and building consensus when possible. It wasn’t linear, it was concentric, circles of relationships that overlapped and influenced each other. While useful in my professional position on campus, I really learned the value of concentric leadership on the rugby field.

I think one of the most visible examples of concentric leadership occurred during the 2015 Women’s Soccer World Cup final when Carli Lloyd took the captains armband off her arm and fastened it around Abby Wambach’s arm. Wambach had entered the match in the 78th minute as a substitute and wore the armband until the end of the match. After the final whistle blew, Wambach found Christie Rampone, the oldest player on the team, and gave her the armband. Wambach and the team wanted Rampone to wear the captain’s badge for the celebration and trophy presentation.

While the exchange of the captain’s honorific was undoubtedly a display of sportsmanship, it also demonstrated that those players perceived leadership as a practice dependent upon the dynamics of many, believing those overlapping circles of relationships must be recognized and honored. Women often see success as a byproduct of connection - it’s a collective effort so all praise of that effort must be shared. As Abby Wambach offered, “I think it’s pretty symbolic that a team that was able to come away with a world championship wants to pass off the attention from one person to another. Carli hands it to me, I hand it to Christie. That is what it takes to win a world championship.” (USA Today 7/6/15)

What often resonates with women, particularly female athletes, is the emphasis on caring for one another as a critical means to the outcome. This stands in contrast to the more transactional message that lies at the heart of male sport, which men often express as “no pain, no gain.” Don’t misunderstand me, women want to win and are willing to endure pain, but we don’t always embrace the notion that there is a direct correlation between the amount of hardship we endure and success. We do, however, believe in a correlation between the strength of the social bonds within the team and success. This is not because we are inherently more empathic or kind, but because our experiences have led us to believe that our best interests are wrapped tightly to that of teammates.

Women and men are not monolithic; we are individuals with unique life experiences and skills. But when we read about all the ways women lack leadership, we must be honest about the social context – unlike men, women live in a society that is deeply conflicted about their leadership and about whether, when and how women should lead. Women are aware that when we do assert authority, we put ourselves at risk for constant, unsolicited critique. This results in a constant cost benefit calculation, “if I speak now how will that be perceived?” or the common experience women have of speaking but not being heard. In all this chatter about women’s leadership, we need to do more to trust the lessons we learned in rugby. Value collective effort, pass along the honors, call out those who contribute, hold others accountable, share information and set a bar we can all get over together. After all it’s not who talks the most, it’s who has something to say.

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