Envisioning Feminist Leadership – AAUW Keynote, 5-9-2019

Below is the script of my keynote for the Valparaiso, Indiana branch of the American Association of University Women annual celebration. It was an honor and a thrill to to be invited to speak on the subject of feminist leadership to this group of extraordinary women.


Hello everyone! It’s an honor and a thrill to address you all today. Let’s be real- I have had opportunities like these because of your work and the progress made by generations of women, activists, teachers, and reformers who made the way for me.

DollyHow many working folks do we have in the room? One of my sources of personal inspiration, Dolly Parton, pointed out over social media today that it is the ninth day of the fifth month, so I also want to wish a happy 9 to 5 day to everyone who, like me, tumbled out of bed and stumbled to the kitchen and poured themselves a cup of ambition this morning. Welcome.

In seriousness, to every person in this room who ever had to fight for a job or a promotion or just recognition of work they were doing, I am grateful for you and I see your labor. Today I’m going to talk to you about envisioning feminist leadership- which I would describe as a collaged practice.

A colleague recently described it as “driving a tank while you’re building it” which is also apt but I tend to think in gentler analogies. We collage a practice, and more specifically the practice of feminist leadership, by taking the pieces that make sense in our situational contexts, which allows us to lead wherever we are. Today, we’ll talk about the pieces of the collage and the practices it can inspire for about 20 minutes, because my mom raised me right, and I respect your time and our dinner plans.

But I’ve realized I haven’t taken a minute to really introduce myself, which is just like me and just like my mom. Everyone know the indomitable Linda Cronk? AAUW Woman of the year 2018? I’m her daughter, Lindsay Cronk. As my mom mentioned I’ve been working in nonprofits and libraries since 2006. I’ve traveled and lived in China and France. I’ve written multimillion dollar grants and negotiated contracts on behalf of more than 1400 colleges and universities.

I’ve worked as a feminist and activist since high school. I founded the VHS branch of Amnesty International and I once spent a night in a cell with a bunch of Ecuadorian nuns when we crossed a line protesting at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA. I’m as proud of that as my masters in library and information science or my other degree in instructional technology.

I currently work at the University of Rochester libraries. I am the Head of Collection Strategies, which means I manage a budget of $9 million for materials and a staff of 6- the library has a full budget many more millions and a staff of 106. I have been presenting and publishing on the topic of feminist leadership for the past three years. That was around the same time I was recognized as a Library Journal Mover & Shaker.

I choose to talk about this topic because I am passionate about it and also because I have come to recognize my power to do so. I am stable in my position, recognized in my field, and my fear of retaliation is relatively low. That’s a privilege. Because of all of that, I feel a sense of obligation to leverage my position to support others. And that’s a feminist impulse in itself.

Any other self-identified feminists in the room? My favorite definition of feminism comes from the scholar and activist bell hooks, who wrote in her seminal work, Feminism is for Everybody, that “Feminism seeks to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” I like the definition because it focuses on action rather than simply values. It proclaims that feminism is a practice, not an empty gesture or a declaration.bell hooks

Leadership, however, can be a little harder to define. In fact, when I gave an early version of this talk as a workshop, an attendee was flummoxed by the notion that leadership could be anything besides feminist. So, as we discuss leadership, I encourage you to consider that leadership doesn’t have positive context for many individuals. Particularly for the oppressed people that feminism seeks to support, leaders have often been figures who ignored their experiences and in some cases exploited their vulnerabilities. Being a leader doesn’t preclude abusing power, though being a good leader should.

The definition from Peter Drucker, a Harvard Business professor, points to some of the issues of leadership without ethical frameworks. “The only definition of a leader,” writes Drucker, “Is someone who has followers.” While true, this definition doesn’t instill confidence in a leader’s ethics or motives. It doesn’t value the follower either, and it’s so important to understand that if leaders have power it’s because of their followers.

Another scholarly expert on the subject, Warren Bennis described leadership as the “capacity to translate vision into reality.” This sounds better to me, though again, it still fails to center a philosophy. Instead, it centers a pitch.

You may have heard of this guy, Bill Gates? He has a definition of leader I like. He says that in the future, namely the next century, “leaders will be those who empower others.” This definition is an improvement because it values and honors those who give leaders power, and also points to good leadership as being power sharing.

Andrea Walker-Leidy, an entrepreneur and a feminist, describes leadership as “the ability to see a problem and be a solution.” Which I like but also puts leaders in the unenviable position of being the person who has to solve everything. It’s not a particularly sustainable model for any individual.

With this high level overview of conceptions of leadership, can we agree that in general, leadership in practice might be defined as applying influence and power and direction (or vision) towards a solution? I’m going to go with it, for the sake of argument and this talk wrapping up in a timely manner.

With this as our framework, we can define feminist leadership as the application of influence and power and direction in pursuit of equity and inclusion (the end of sexism and oppression). This doesn’t mean other goals would be excluded. In work and life, you will already know, we often have job descriptions, quotas, and institutional goals to meet that guide our work and our leadership. We have preordained outcomes, in my case the need to manage and forecast a 9 million dollar budget and a team of six, mostly people of color, mostly shelvers. But I believe these works can all benefit from feminist approach, mine does. Moreover, I believe a feminist approach assures greater engagement and more meaningful outcomes.

One thing I’ve learned as I’ve traveled the world, explored different careers and positions, is this: there is no fundamental difference between “men” leaders and “women” leaders. There was a time when this was a disillusioning realization.

But there are simply good leaders and bad leaders, and lots of mediocre leaders, but let’s be honest they’re bad too.

I strongly believe that the principles of “feminist leadership” can be embodied by anybody. And when I think about feminist leadership, I think of inclusive practices, which a research study in 6 countries, including Canada, the US, Mexico, and France shows is essential to unlocking innovation and better team performance.

As for what this kind of leadership looks like in practice, I like to emphasize four behaviors that same research links to inclusion: Empowerment, Accountability, Courage, and Humility.  Think of the acronym “EACH” to help keep these traits front of mind, as in “each and every one of us” can be inclusive and feminist in our opportunities to lead (and our opportunities to follow). If we think of EACH there is the power to bake in or integrate the practice of inclusive leadership in our daily work.

Practicing truly inclusive leadership is a critical goal for any community (be it a formal group, a workplace, or a neighborhood) and it’s accessible and beneficial to all people regardless of gender or identity. The best leaders understand that every person has unique skills, talents, and interests, as well as different roles to play at work and in life. I believe that leaders who recognize that everyone deserves equal opportunities to pursue fulfilling careers and lives, and who enact the EACH behaviors to help others live up to their potential and drive meaningful change, will find greater success. It’s that simple.

But I think beyond good leaders and bad leaders- and we know the difference right? I want to talk to you about feminist leadership because I can tell you from personal experience and research including the results of  studies I’m about to share that this country of ours is in the midst of a leadership crisis- in terms of not only elected officials but also institutional leaders. Some stats that tell that story.

72% of leaders say they are “inspirational” or “motivational.” This comes from a survey of major employers conducted by Gallup in 2017. But only 18% of workers at those companies described their leaders as inspiring. That’s a perception gap of 54%.

In fact, 65% of workers said they would forego a raise if it meant their supervisors, their leaders, would be fired. So not only uninspired leaders, undesirable leaders. That’s a startling disconnect. That’s an engagement gap- and it’s a huge issue as we try to confront new challenges together.

But the issue goes beyond our workplaces to our political leaders. In our last national election, 40% of eligible US voters didn’t participate in the election according to government agency reporting.

These stats tell a story of a dual failure of trust and engagement- and if we aren’t thinking sincerely and mindfully, about what we can do to get people engaged, we’re failing as leaders. Feminist leadership- practicing empowerment, accountability, courage and humility, refocuses and realigns leadership by defusing and sharing power to support success (the act of empowerment), creating shared standards and goals (accountability), acting and pushing for positive and just outcomes, identifying and fighting against inequity and bias (courage), and acknowledging our own shortcomings of knowledge and experience in favor of learning from the strengths and experiences of those we seek to lead (humility).

Feminist leadership transforms organizational structure because while it creates accountability structures (which we desperately need to be able to know whether we’re succeeding or failing) it also redistributes power beyond hierarchical structures allowing for more innovation more capacity and more leaders.

The challenges we face collectively are not getting simpler or less expensive or less important. Quite the opposite- they are more complicated and intricate and expensive and pressing than ever. Feminist leadership, which creates many-fold leadership opportunities, can help us better address these challenges and also acknowledge, make visible and valued, the leadership work that always supports these efforts. I’m talking about caregiving, teaching, nursing, housekeeping, researching, and support work that is leadership, and supports and subsidizes more visible traditional leadership work. I’m talking about leaders whose involvement is crucial to mindful collective address of issues like inequity, racism, climate change, and mass incarceration to name a few. I’m talking about labor and leadership we have too long ignored and devalued that will be key to successful efforts moving forward, so we need to model and advocate for our moms, sisters, grandmothers, friends, who deserve to be in the conversation and be compensated for their work.

Audre Lorde, a librarian and activist said it best when she wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” By being leaders but doing leadership in a different, inclusive way, we can transform our workplaces, organizations, and society to support and value one another. Beginning the important collective work ahead in a way that empowers rather than disenfranchises. We can build trust, inspire and support one another, coming together to become stronger communities that work together better, support and celebrate difference.

Audre Lorde

A final quote from bell hooks, because you’ll recall I called this a contextual and situational framework– “there is no one path to feminism,” or to feminist leadership. That collage of practice I talked about at the beginning of this talk- yours and mine will have pieces in common but they will be- should be- different.

How do I do feminist leadership with my budget? I bring ethical questions to the table when I help decide what materials we buy. I try to make sure we work with smaller presses, with nontraditional publishers, with women and minority owned businesses. I ask our bigger partners to protect the rights of faculty authors and students. I try to make sure that as much of that budget as is possible makes as much information available to as many people as possible.

How do I bring feminist leadership to my people? By empowering and trusting them, sharing and making visible their work and successes to the greater campus. I also advocate for them- I ask for raises for accommodations when necessary. I try to make sure they know I see and appreciate their work- that when it’s time for me to follow their lead, I do. In a recent library strategic planning process I made sure they were represented in leadership roles for the group projects looking at space and collection management- their expertise.

These examples show the fluidity, potential, and the challenge of feminist leadership. It is as much work as traditional leadership- it requires greater flexibility and situational awareness. But it does lead to more engagement, and as I noted, engagement and the lack there of is the true collective challenge we must face.

Wherever you are in the hierarchy of your workplace or your stage in life, there will be opportunities to practice and collage inclusive, feminist leadership. Even if, maybe especially if, the way we lead is by offering support and visibility and solidarity to people who have not had the opportunity to lead before. Also remember- it’s practice not merely values. I encourage you to consider your power and continue to take action. As with all opportunities, there are many ways to find success, decoupage what works, but how you do the work and the practice can offer the opportunity to make things better for those who will follow us. Let’s make even more opportunities to speak and share and keynote for them.

Thank you again for your time and this opportunity that you have given me.

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