Woman looking at skyDoes the idea of becoming a leader make you anxious? Are you already so over-extended that the thought of ‘leaning in’ makes you ready to fall over? Do you think becoming a leader means being aggressive—and that’s just not you? Many women seem to resist taking on leadership. Maybe the problem isn’t us, but our concept of leadership itself.

IN THE NORTHERN ALBERTA TOWN of Fort Mackay, a group of Aboriginal and Métis girls sit quietly in a school classroom. Their eyes are closed.

It is Day One of the Friendly PEERsuasian program, where these adolescent girls will learn healthy ways to cope with stress and peer pressure. One of the main goals of the girls' program, which runs in ten schools across the region, is to help the girls avoid the deadly trap of substance abuse that has claimed so many young people in their communities. If all goes well, they will also learn to become healthy role models—PEERsuaders— for younger girls.

Right now, they are thinking about the question posed by the program facilitator, Ann Dort-Maclean: “What does a leader look like?” She gives the girls a few moments, then asks each in turn to describe the image that came to mind. Ann has heard dozens of girls answer this same question so—unfortunately—she can predict what they’ll say.

Here, in the traditional land of the Chipewyan, Cree, and Dene, their image of a leader is a white man in a business suit carrying a briefcase. Our society has a very narrow definition of leadership and it limits every one of us. We tend to think of leaders as traditionally male and assume the growing interest in women’s leadership is a new idea, a product of the modern Western world.

We see leadership as reserved for the few who manage to climb to the top of the social heap, with the rest of us destined to be followers. We believe leadership either takes innate skill—‘He’s a born leader!’—or highly specialized knowledge. In children’s books, the leader of the animal kingdom is presented as a solitary male lion.

But what if none of this were true? What if women’s leadership is actually ancient? What if there were room for thousands, even millions, of leaders? What if you actually knew enough to take on leadership right now—today?

What if we encouraged our children to act like Canada geese instead of lions? After all, these majestic birds take turns flying at the head of their iconic V formation. Each flap of their wings eases the journey of the bird behind. When they migrate, they head towards a common goal, honking encouragement to one another as they go.

If it weren’t for an encouraging phone call, Melanie Vautour might never have become a leader. Melanie is the Program Manager at Saint John Community Loan Fund in New Brunswick, where she helps women living in poverty to get micro-loans to launch a small business, get back in the workforce, or access better housing. For her, the hardest step to becoming a leader was learning to see herself as one.

Two years ago, Melanie received an email inviting her to apply to the Canadian Women’s Foundation Leadership Institute. She promptly deleted the message.

“I didn’t apply because I didn’t see myself as a leader,” says Melanie. “I guess in my mind I equated it to being a boss, and I’m not a boss.” Besides, she didn’t have the time. Her already busy life was about to get even busier: she’d just learned her seventeen-year-old daughter was pregnant.

It wasn’t until later that Melanie realized she also rejected the idea because of her unconscious beliefs about leaders. “I thought being the boss meant being demanding and telling people what to do: ‘Do this. Do it now.’ I think I saw leaders as people who are angry, and I didn’t want to be like that.”

Melanie only applied to the Leadership Institute after receiving a phone call from Chanel Grenaway, Director of Economic Development at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. 

At the Leadership Institute, Melanie was surprised to learn she’d been behaving like a leader for years without realizing it. “All through my career, I hadn’t been the kind of person to tell others what to do. But I always brought people together to accomplish amazing things.”

She was also surprised to learn about the many female leaders she’d never heard about before. Given her own interests, she was especially interested to learn that women have historically been very active in social justice movements. Although men were usually the public face of these efforts, it was the women on the ground—doing the day-to-day work, spreading the word—who really created the change.

“I think women have always been leaders,” Melanie says. “We’ve just forgotten it or never learned it in the first place.”

Mae Louise Campbell could have told her that.

Mae Louise was born in northern Manitoba and is currently the Resident Elder at Red River Community College. She belongs to the Turtle Clan, and her traditional name means Fire Heart Woman. For over twenty years, she has been sharing the sacred gift of women’s medicine in healing circles across Canada. Today she is known as Elder Mae Louise.

In a Toronto office building, she prepares to share her knowledge of the traditional leadership role of Aboriginal women. She accepts an offering of tobacco, then lays out cedar and a smudging bowl on a thick red cloth. She begins by explaining why women were the traditional leaders in Aboriginal communities.

“Many years ago, women were acknowledged as the life-givers and were therefore treated with great respect,” she says. In fact, women were held in such high esteem in traditional Aboriginal societies, woman abuse was virtually unknown. Most tribes were matriarchal and led by a Grandmother’s Council. Everyone, including the male Chiefs, followed their advice.

Since women were the community leaders, when the Europeans first arrived it was natural for the Chiefs and the Grandmother’s Councils to meet them together. But at the time, women in Europe had no rights and very little power, so the newcomers didn’t understand why the Aboriginal women were there. The Chiefs were equally surprised at the absence of the European women. But tragically, it was the European attitudes towards women that prevailed.

“Our women lost their power because our men took it away,” says Elder Mae Louise. “When they did that, our communities crumbled because it was the women who held power and kept everything together.”

The loss of Aboriginal women’s status began when the colonizers banned traditional medicines and healing ceremonies, which were primarily done by women. Over the years, many other oppressive practices followed, including the forced placement of thousands of Aboriginal children in residential schools.

The fallout includes epidemic levels of violence against women in Aboriginal communities. Approximately 824 Aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered. An Aboriginal woman in Canada is almost three times as likely to experience violence as a non-Aboriginal woman.

Elder Mae Louise saw this violence growing up. “My father abused my mother most of her life,” she says. “Women in my communities are sexually abused over and over again. Unfortunately, many of our women totally give up.”

Married for thirty years with five children, she was raised Roman Catholic. She tried to follow the priests’ instructions to be an obedient wife but the rules were foreign. “I wasn’t following our own cultural tradition of what a woman is.” At one point, she became deeply depressed. She realized she didn’t know who she was besides a wife and mother—a situation familiar to many women, Aboriginal or not. Slowly she realized she had to heal, and she had to become empowered.

Today, in her healing circles with women, she begins by saying to them: “Tell me who you are.” Typically, the women share the ages of their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, they talk about what they’ve done for a living, and about what their husbands do.

After everyone has spoken, she responds: “Thank you for introducing your children and your job and your husband. Now please introduce yourselves.”

Her gentle message is this: in order to heal, women need to spend the time to get to know themselves, body, mind, emotions, and spirit. “Until women heal and take back their power, nothing in this world will change,” she says.

Both Melanie and Elder Mae Louise agree that women and men lead differently. “People think women aren’t taking leadership because we’re not always telling people what to do,” says Melanie. “But women like to collaborate, to bring everyone together, and make sure everyone is heard. Men tend to lead from a place of authority rather than a place of being connected to people. But you can’t lead by applying policies and procedures. Life isn’t like that. You have to always consider the human context. Work is always influenced by life, by our families, by our hopes and dreams. I think women understand this better."

Melanie thinks women sometimes adopt aggressive or controlling strategies in order to break into leadership, especially in large organizations. Elder Mae Louise sees this as a survival strategy, and believes women make this mistake because they don’t know who they are.

For her, women’s leadership is fundamentally different because women bring different gifts. “Women have to believe in the deepest part of their being, that they carry great gifts for humanity: the gifts of love and nurturing and a desire for equality. Through these gifts, they can know what’s best for families, what’s best for children, and what’s best for the men.”

However, taking on leadership presents women with a genuine challenge. A woman’s leadership must be rooted in her intimate knowledge of her community and must be focused on doing what’s best for its members, but she cannot lead effectively if she does not know herself just as intimately and be just as focused on doing what’s best for herself. This balancing act will be familiar to many women.

Melanie is keenly aware she almost turned down a life-changing opportunity in favour of caring for her daughter during her unexpected pregnancy. Ironically, her leadership training ended up helping her to see how best to support her daughter.

“For the first two months after the baby was born, I tried to take control. I was always saying to my daughter: “Do this. Do that.” To her chagrin, Melanie found herself behaving like the leaders she didn’t want to become.

It was pure ‘command and control’ leadership, without a hint of the collaborative style she respected and was learning more about at the Leadership Institute. Finally, Melanie’s own grandmother told her to back off.

“Older women have so much wisdom,” Melanie says. “She made me see I’d never asked my daughter what she wanted to do.” Things improved when Melanie started listening to her daughter and supporting her in her own goals. Her daughter has since returned to school and graduated from high school.

At the Institute, Melanie also learned what Elder Mae Louise tries to teach the women in her healing circles: leadership starts with an intimate knowledge of yourself, your beliefs, and your passions. “You have to know your convictions and then work hard to stick to them and make them a reality,” says Melanie. “When you do that, others will see it and want to follow you.”

And once you’ve clarified what really matters to you, it becomes harder to turn away from it. “Now when I see something is needed, I have to step up.” Melanie is currently working to find a way to fill the large gap in women’s services in St. John’s. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have done that. I feel so much stronger and confident.” She is always looking for ways to help other women develop their own leadership skills, too.

“Now I realize I’ve always been a leader but I’d never thought of myself as one. So many other women are in the same position. If someone could just help them find that voice, just imagine what it could be like.” She believes having more women in leadership positions will lead to better social policies and workplace practices.

“It amazes me how many companies have mostly female staff with children but they don’t offer childcare,” Melanie says. “They don’t offer flex time. What do they think is going to happen when a child becomes sick? If we had more women in leadership positions who used their voice, things like this might change.”

Changes like these are badly needed, but are they really on the way?

Elder Mae Louise is cautiously optimistic. “There is a movement of the spirit in women,” she says. Aboriginal women are rediscovering their traditional culture and becoming leaders in their communities. She’s even heard some Aboriginal men talking about bringing back the Grandmother Councils.

But, as Elder Mae Louise says, there’s a big difference between saying and doing and being. The pace of change is slow and there is still much healing that needs to happen. “I get impatient,” she says. “I would like to see things happen sooner.”

When she heard how the girls in the Friendly PEERsuasian program saw leaders as white men with briefcases, she shook her head sadly. Perhaps she would feel more hopeful if she knew how quickly the girls’ thinking about leadership can change with the right kind of support.

During the 20-week program, the girls learn to think more critically about the pressures they face from peers and the media about how they should look, what should interest them, and how they should behave—including choices about substance abuse.

In the process, they gain the confidence to make smarter choices. They also learn strategies for encouraging their friends to make better choices, too. They plan and organize substance abuse prevention activities for younger children, aged six to ten. Along the way, sometimes without even realizing it, they find themselves taking on leadership.

At some point, the group facilitator Ann Dort-Maclean repeats her question: What does a leader look like? “By this time,” she says, “they talk about their mothers, their aunties, and themselves.” Through this deceptively simple program, the girls begin the journey of taking back their power.

Elder Mae Louise would be very pleased, and probably not surprised. After all, she says the wisdom of leadership is in the bones of every woman. “It just has to be reawakened.”

This story was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of SHE magazine.

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