The Last Time I Got Mansplained on the Street (or How Difference Is Interesting)

Image via RenegadeChicks.comI had an interesting conversation with a man on the street outside a co-working/startup space the other day. He asked what I did, and I told him I was a writer/editor who also did women’s leadership work with a focus on social justice. He said, “Oh, so like Lean In?” And I said, “Yes and no. I’m interested in how women’s leadership—and the well-being of women and girls—becomes everybody’s (more people’s) issue.”“But it’s not,” he said. “It’s a women’s issue.” (Good to know, I thought! That ends that!) He went on, “Also, what’s the argument for women’s leadership other than having more diversity of opinion?” I said diversity of opinion seemed like a pretty important thing. Then he said, “I don’t see how having one man and one woman each giving their opinion is any different than having two men with different ideas each giving their opinion.” This man worked in tech and had been talking a lot about data sets, so I said, “Well, women and men have different data sets. People bring different knowledge to the table. Maybe we’re smarter together than we are alone?”“Boom!” he said, and we smiled and high-fived. Boom is right, I guess, but then he went back to saying everybody’s equal or should be, so it’s just not right to say we need women leaders because they’re women. I thanked him for a good chat and ran off to my meeting.This interaction confirmed something I run into a lot—this distorted version of equality that refuses to acknowledge difference and ignores women’s lived experiences. An unwillingness/inability to acknowledge that all of us have very different life experiences and that this matters.Aiming to create a level playing field in which we are all divorced from our real life experiences and ideas about what we think needs to change or could change doesn’t work. We set up women and other underrepresented groups to fail when we do this. Aiming to create a level playing field in which we are invited to bring who we really are—and what we really know about how the world works—to the table? That’s exciting.The kind of authentic leadership I’m interested in, then, is the kind that says “be authentic,” as in bring your real life experiences and insights with you into the way you lead. Let them change the way you lead, the work your organization does, and how you do your work. Take cues from “best practices” and the mainstream culture if you want, sure, and stay on mission, do your work in context, all those things… But use the power of your unique knowledge. We need more women leaders (more men! more people!) who do this well, and we need to support people who do this as a rule.Keeping it real as we redefine power and lead in bigger ways requires courage. And it’s doubly difficult sometimes because the more authenticity you have in any given group, the more difference you have, too—and working with difference is hard. It creates waves. But I don’t know, we’ve got some pretty big problems out there to solve (and opportunities to take), and our current methods—say, in Washington, for example—don’t seem to be working so well. Maybe the world needs more waves and more authentic leaders who have the guts to make them.Interested in learning more? Join me for one of two webcasts, May 1st or June 26th to talk authentic leadership, influence, and power. You’ll leave with a new understanding of the difference between the three and learn how you can use principles of authentic leadership to advance your career or move your projects forward, whatever your field. This will be a highly interactive discussion. Join us!


Read more posts by Lex Schroeder.