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Strong OR Compassionate – the binary choice for leadership?10 Jun 2021

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive or assertive enough or because I’m empathic, I am weak.”

Jacinda Adern LeadershipJacinda Arden’s comments are echoed by the daily experiences of many women but why? Why does the world persist in seeing things in such a binary 2-dimentional way?

Clearly strength is a master trait for successful leadership as is compassion and empathy for those you lead. Why must it be that you are either strong, brave, fearless and assertive OR kind caring nurturing. Are they in fact mutually exclusive?

Clearly Jacinda thinks not, “I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong” and indeed she has modelled that belief for example in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack that killed fifty people she acted assertively and forcefully in banning weapons and compassionately in displaying empathy to the victims’ families.

Where then does this paradigm about it being a binary choice in leadership between strength and compassion come from?

It comes from history and societal paradigms of the roles of men and women. For Millennia the role of men was to be the warriors, the protectors, the leaders. The role of women was to be the homemakers, the child rearers and comforters. For all that we live in the 21st century, these ancient, gendered norms are totally ingrained in culture and therefore beliefs and behaviours that change at only a glacial pace.

In the UK, politics reflects this and is set up in a very binary way. A largely 2 party system with Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s opposition, sitting in a physically adversarial manner across the house of commons from each other, 2 swords lengths apart. Frankly, this binary thinking is also comfortable and easy for the hard of thinking, which also explains why it changes so slowly.

However, in other ways, technology and lifestyles for example, the world is changing at the speed of light and the pace of change is growing exponentially. There is a tremendous need for us humans to match that pace of change, to be able to grow and adapt to the massive challenges and opportunities that the 21st century presents to humanity. And to do this, we need to the effort, skills, and abilities of all of us, regardless of gender, colour or any other classification of mankind. We need compassion and we need strength, we need both, one without the other is imbalanced and will not produce the best outcomes.

And yet we still seem stuck in these extraordinary anachronistic thinking constructs that suggest in a leadership role it is incompatible to be both strong and compassionate. This must change.
As individuals, businesses, organisations, or parties, we must challenge ourselves to ensure our thinking and behaviours encompass both master traits.

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Strong OR Compassionate – the binary choice for leadership?

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