A new feminine leadership paradigm: Healing trauma though resilient hierarchy and mutually empowering relationships

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

I have always longed for deep and powerful leadership. A leader who creates a space of respect and empowerment for all. Where each member’s value is appreciated. Where the ebbs and flows within the community are seen with eyes of wisdom, and are handled with great skill. Where everyone feels they belong and are contributing a valuable part to the wholeness of community.

This month’s article is inspired by deep words from a Heal Your Heart Through Meditation community member. She brings up important issues, arising from her longing for a new leadership paradigm. Her words touched on my own longing. I propose this as the basic question arising from a longing shared by many:

How can we define a new leadership paradigm that is healthier than the male-dominated, hierarchical, top-down, oppressive, life-snuffing, inspiration-killing, and abuse-prone structured paradigm we’ve lived within for decades, and perhaps even centuries?

The quote below is shared with permission by our HYHTM community member. She engaged a deep insight process and emerged with the following pearl of longing:

Is it possible to create a program that is structured in a way that feels supportive, organic and developmental (which I think yours does [Heal Your Heart Through Meditation]) but at the same time, not fall into the male hierarchical structure that is top down and prone, I believe, to misuse and negative power imbalances?

I just wonder if the female inspired path can create something a little different. Structured but not too top down hierarchical, something like that?

I guess I know what I am seeking, and I am wondering if others would create it…and I certainly respect the time and effort it takes to create such programs so I believe women should empower each other to financially support each other as well etc…

I must first acknowledge some trepidation as I enter into responding to these thoughts. I just came out of a two-year healing retreat last Wednesday, and I have been reflecting intensively on these issues in light of my leadership of Buddhist Project Sunshine. In fact, this was the topic of a counselling session I had last week with my now former counsellor, Leland Maerz. (We contracted to do six sessions together, and this session was the sixth.)

Leland is a strong justice advocate himself, in the domain of domestic violence. He said in our last session that he sees me as one of the greatest whistleblowers of our century because of the wisdom and skill with which I lead Buddhist Project Sunshine. I was surprised by his statement. I’m going to be transparent in saying I am currently grappling with my leadership style.

I am going to begin by teasing out two topics that I see embedded in this courageous community member’s statement. First, she speaks about meditation programs, such as Heal Your Heart Through Meditation. Second, I feel she is speaking about a more feminine style of leadership.

Topic 1: Meditation programs structured as supportive, organic and developmental

In terms of the first topic, I love what she says about having a meditation program that “feels supportive, organic and developmental.” Being transparent about my own experience, I grew up in the Shambhala cult with emotionally absent parents. This was a double whammy in my experience, and together these two facets severely impacting my childhood development.

The silver lining is it caused me to immerse myself in a steep learning curve in adult life to develop emotionally, relationally and my sense of identity.

I lived in Toronto for 19 years, and I worked with master healers, including top relational therapists, two indigenous shamans and the imminent energy psychologist, Dr. Joan Beattie. With strong mentorship, I did a lot of healing and development out of my state of childhood wounding, walking through great blazing healing initiations, and I formed a personal sense of identity and responsibility as a citizen of our world.

After this therapy and other healing, I did a Masters of Education in Counselling Psychology at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). In my degree I specialized in trauma healing, and applied each academic course to my journey of learning about developmental and relational healing.

Through all of this, I have grown a profound respect for each individual’s unique process of human development. Therefore I strive to create a space in Heal Your Heart Through Meditation that weaves together two aspects: (1) the space is palpably gentle and permissive, and (2) it evokes eustress (positive stress) through shepherding my courageous students to keep moving forward in their healing and meditation practice. My shamanic training informs how to create an organic process for this in Heal Your Heart Through Meditation.

This describes how I create a healing/feeling/organic-growing space in the program. Let us now move to the second topic, the longing for a healthier and more feminine leadership style.

Topic 2: A new paradigm of feminine leadership

This is new and juicy terrain, and I feel it’s risky territory to enter. I am a woman who has taken incredible risks in the past, knowing risk is the doorway to creating new worlds. So let’s take this risk of this discussion together, shall we?

Part of managing my risk here is to invite you to participate in this dialog. We must include a diversity of perspectives to truly form a strong new paradigm.

My approach today is to put out some initial thoughts, which I will call “puzzle pieces,” that I am currently working with, and hopefully with some more pieces that *you* bring from your experience, we can create a more complete picture.

Puzzle piece 1: I hosted a series of community discussions in the Fall of 2020, and in one of those discussions we talked about the abuse of male leaders of spiritual communities. All of the women present at that discussion had gone through an experience of profound spiritual betrayal within such a community. There was a natural aversion and even repudiation of hierarchy amongst the participants of this discussion.

We first took time to acknowledge the betrayals, wounds and resulting caution from those experiences. Then I proposed we face the fact that some people train themselves deeply and have something to offer to others from that extensive training.

Do we regard those people simply as our equals? Do we honour them for what they worked to achieve and are now sharing with us? How do we properly relate with teachers who have developed something unique and valuable? How do we relate in a way that allows us to connect with them in positive ways and receive the gifts they are sharing with us? I don’t think that coming with a hard shell of defensiveness allows for the communication and honour needed to receive gifts from a master.

The conversation participants agreed.

In my own experience, I aspire to hold masters up with the honour they deserve. I recognize their gifts, as well as their work and sacrifice to serve as a teacher. I also know that we are all human, and if they behave badly, I will call it out to be addressed and give them an opportunity to grow.

Puzzle piece 2: In 2018 another treasured member of my community recommended a book to me, “Reinventing Organizations,” by Frederic Laloux. This is a powerful book in its analysis of different types of organizations, and the role that hierarchy plays in each type. Laloux proposes there has been an evolution through history of organizations, and the currently most evolved organization type he calls, “teal organizations”. It’s been a couple of years since I read this book, so I’m going purely on my memory – so forgive any mistakes, please!

In teal organizations there is a founder who establishes core values for the organization, and then through an organic process they transmit those core values in a way that people in the organization begin living them without a top down hierarchy. The founder steps back and serves as a coach, when asked by a team within the organization that feels they need support. If core values are getting lost, the founder will step in and reassert the values in an organic way that empowers members of the organization to step up and live the values.

I love the vision for the teal organization. I love that Laloux provides numerous examples of existing teal organizations, proving it can be a reality. I continue to explore how this might work with the communities I lead.

Puzzle piece 3: I have started a number of communities and organizations, and although I have tried to create collective leadership, it has always failed. For instance, with Buddhist Project Sunshine I first tried to gather women leaders who had been harmed within Shambhala to heal together and then lead the initiative together. Their response was to beg me to abandon my project, because they were afraid I would get hurt. If I had listened to them, none of the suppressed harm would ever have been exposed.

Mid-way in the project a collective circle was forming, and I thought we could be a group leading together. However, strange dynamics started happening where the men in the circle were shutting down the voices of women survivors and demanding all the attention. I formed this initiative to hold up the voices of survivors, and I found this behaviour was sucking the life force from the project. So I ended that circle and continued forward as the solo leader.

In a much simpler example, during my Christian journey I was hosting an Easter dinner for friends from the LGBT Catholic group I was part of. I did not invite one man who was a straight ally, because he was rather dissociated and often brought strange energy into the mix. A week or so before the dinner, we were all having brunch one morning after mass, and one of my invited guests suggested in front of the straight ally that I could always make room for another person at the table and invite the ally. I said no.

Now I felt really rotten about this, because it seemed uncharitable and un-christian of me. I felt so guilty, I brought it up with one of my professors at Regis, the Jesuit College where I was studying. To my surprise my professor complimented my decision. She said that if I had allowed the dissociated man to join, it would have been a very different space for everyone. In fact, I had done something good in protecting the space so that my guests would be able to be more open and vulnerable with each other.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I spoke with my counsellor about my leadership of Buddhist Project Sunshine, he said similar things about my decisions in Buddhist Project Sunshine. He said that what he saw is that I made difficult decisions to protect the life and vitality of the project, fully aware of the possible harm I might be doing to those who I excluded from the leadership circle.

All I can say is that I am passionate about protecting space so people can be vulnerable, heal and authentically pursue their spiritual path. And it really sucks when I need to step in and remove someone from leadership. However, in the end, the group feels safe, and that seems important. It seems important to strong leadership. I do my very, very, very best to minimize any hurt someone might feel when I remove them from leadership.

I believe we all have different and valuable gifts. Some people have strong leadership skills. Others have other valuable skills. If we try to make everyone exactly the same and form collective leadership, it can become watered down and wishy washy. This leadership will never lead profound and brilliant communities.

Puzzle piece 4: I experience myself being more clear and visionary than many people I lead. I feel alone in this, and I long to share leadership power.

I also know that an inherent aspect of my leadership is that I welcome everyone sharing the gifts they possess. I know that everyone has a valued place in community. Many community experiences are pioneering experiences. Since they are so new, it feels important to me to solicit input and wisdom from the community. (Like I am doing here, in asking you to contribute your thoughts on this subject.)

We are all human, and we all have our unique connection with wisdom. I value learning from other people’s perspectives and the hard won wisdom from their life experience. And what they have to say creates more wholeness for the community wisdom.

I first learned of the notion of mutually empowering relationships at least two decades ago, and since I first heard of it, this ideal has been dear to my heart. It comes from the feminist researchers connected with the Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies at Wellesley College. You can read about their ideas in the book, “The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy and in Life.”

There is enough on this one topic to warrant a book, and it goes beyond the scope of this article. The one thing I will highlight from their research is the idea of zest. These feminist researchers claim that one of the aspects of mutually empowering relationships is they have zest – they give all parties in the relationship a sense of zest for life. I feel this particular quality is important, especially in communities impacted by trauma. We all deserve to come out of the shadows of trauma and live relationships that fill us with zest!

For me as a hierarchical leader who invites high engagement from members, I experience zest in walking the “tight wire”: on one side actively encouraging participation, and on the others side when someone has fallen into a bad energy, addressing it if it is impacting the whole. Since I often find myself with the clarity to discern this, I find myself in a lonely place of holding the space, holding the higher perspective, and guiding communities forward into bright new spaces.

Puzzle piece 5: Accountability in hierarchy. Since I often find myself with a unique level of clarity, and at the same time holding inviting space for other’s contributions, I have been developing a new leadership paradigm which I am calling resilient hierarchy with mutually empowering relationships.

It’s not comfortable for me to say I am a hierarchical leader, because I long for the collective leadership vision that I spoke of at the beginning of Buddhist Project Sunshine.

In my last session with Leland I spoke about my discomfort with practicing hierarchical leadership, and he asked me how I, as leader, safeguard against causing harms. I told him that I strongly rely on my spiritual practice to help me stay grounded and coming from a perspective of compassion. I also practice very deep self-care and make sure I get into nature regularly.

I spoke to him about having “checks and balances”. I am constantly looking at myself and assessing, “Is what I am doing fair? Is it uplifting the situation? Is it empowering the people I’m working with?” I constantly evaluate myself. This close scrutiny comes from my having seen the impacts of abuse from leaders. It is very important to me to lead from a place of deep integrity. When I fall short in my integrity, I do deep debriefs with mentors and counsellors and ensure I learn the lessons there for me to safeguard against ever making those mistakes again.

I’ve laid out some puzzle pieces here that might be useful for a new leadership paradigm. I know I have much to learn from others, and I would love to hear your ideas for how we can create a new paradigm of feminine leadership. Please do share below, or respond further through my community needs survey . Your contribution will lead to a better understanding for what can be possible.

If you are interested in checking out Heal Your Heart Through Meditation, you can try a free 2-week trial, PLUS it is on sale in the month of May – you can get it for 50%.

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