Caring leadership: an ancient legacy

When thinking about modern women, the question is: “What is different about women? How do they contribute to the world in a unique way?”. Women have a special legacy of caring leadership and today they have the opportunity and the responsibility to bring it to the table.

Right down to our DNA, as women we are wired around birth and care: something that’s allowed our species to survive as long as our ability to hunt. Perhaps it’s even outlived those other primal instincts.

Humans are the only species that needs caring for after birth for so long. It’s why our social skills are key to our survival.

That’s how it’s always been. It’s an extremely powerful model of caring leadership. Women can embody and diffuse it, bringing a new perspective to the world.

So what do we mean when we talk about caring leadership behaviours? Riccarda Zezza explains more in this short video of her TEDx talk in Ortygia, published on and translated into five different languages.

Here’s what she had to say about women’s caring leadership

What is power?
If you close your eyes, and imagine power, what do you see?
asked the same question to the oracle of Google Images, and this is what I got.
Power seems to be black and white.
It’s about being strong.
Power is a puppeteer.
It’s about prevailing on others.
Power looks like a white man.
A sword is a symbol of power. With a sword, you can impose your will.
The sharper, the better.
It points to the sky: the higher, the better.
A rocket is a symbol of power.
A technological threat to lives: the logic of dominance,
empowered by progress.
Power stands out against the sky: as far as possible from the ground.
It has the shape of a sword, a rocket, a tower.
It’s solitary, it’s edgy, it’s dangerous.
The higher, the better. The bigger, the better.

Yes, power can flourish.
But it does so like a tree: if it generates life,
it is just an externality of its natural will to elevate.
Throughout the centuries, power developed
by detaching itself from the grounded things of life.
Life was intentionally life behind
so it didn’t “hold back” growth.

Deciding what power really means

But why?
When did we agree that power would be about supremacy, strength and victory over others?
Did we ever have an alternative?
The oldest and longest phase of human history, the prehistorical era:
that’s when the current model of power took its roots,
in a primary instinct which kept us alive:
our capacity to hunt and fight, playing a zero-sum game with other species.
Yes, hunting was an absolute.
We couldn’t come out of it with a draw.
Men either won or lost,
it meant survival or death.
This powerful model wired man’s brain,
to the point that “fight or flight” has become its automatic response to stress.

Today, this template rules most of human activities:
in the economic arena, as in the political one,
we unconsciously apply a zero-sum game.
We compete, we fight, we either win or lose, always.
Of course!
How could we disobey such a deep and historical instinct?
And it’s a male instinct.

The reason why “Anthropos” means both “human being” and “man” is not the lack of linguists’ creativity.
There is instead a deep truth here.
For many centuries, for milennia,
the history of men overlapped with that of humanity.
Men were the creators and the storytellers.
Their instincts and attitudes shaped the world as we see it today.
The human species carries the heritage of millennia of manhood.

The biggest minority group

Today, women make up only 5 percent of the economic decision-making power in the world, despite being 50 percent of the population.
Out of 146 countries, there are only 15 female leaders
eight of whom are their country’s first woman in power.
The economic case for diversity has been recently proven,
and women have been invited to join the game, as you can see.
The doors of power are open.
Programs are teaching us how to behave in order to fit,
quotas are freeing our seats,
men are asked to make an extra effort not to follow their instinct
in selecting peers who look and behave like them.
Women have received a sort of invitation, which sounds a bit like this:
“You’re welcome to play with us: these are the rules.
Please don’t expect them to change according to your talent and inclinations.”

An invitation to sit at the table

So, women started to join in the game:
they could wear uniforms to fit in better
and not disturb those who were there before them.
Women could learn how to run, to compete, to fight for victory.
They could even learn how to play football, and to like it!
They were entitled to change a few colours, as long as they don’t discuss the overall outfit of power, and they don’t pretend to wear a tie!
A few women got in, in a way or another:
they proved they could play the game, they could sit at the table and follow the rules.

But why so few of them?
Why, despite the clear attempts to drag women into power,
are women not getting there?
It looks like they need a damn good reason
to leave their comfortable minority seats
and they are not getting it.

Giving women a reason to write the future

I remember when I became a manager,
and the head of HR proudly told me that I could choose the best car!
I was a bit puzzled because I was not sharing his level of excitement.
In fact, I wasn’t there to get a bigger car!
This is not a detail as it may seem.
It’s the storyteller that defines who wins, and what the reward is.
And if you don’t like the reward, it might be because you didn’t write the story.
And what’s worse, this makes you less interested in writing it, also in the future.

Why should women write the definition of power?
They’ve held the minority seat for the last 5,000 years
making it possible for them to sit and complain,
leaving their hands free to fix all those little things around them that are not working.
Free not to sign contracts that they don’t like,
nor to follow uncomfortable roads.
It takes a lot of effort and motivation to aspire
to a power you don’t identify with.
Especially if the reward is a car.

An opportunity for change

Maybe good old Nietzsche was right when he said that
“In the end, things must be as they are and have always been.”
You see, the effort that our society is making is to leave things as they are,
by asking women to adapt to our current values,
such as finance, technology, competition.

Well, I hope that this effort fails, because what we have now, today,
is a unique opportunity for our species to evolve,
if women change current values, instead of being changed by them.
I believe that our call, as women, is not to join the game,
but to change the game.
Not to adapt to power, nor to replace it, but to enrich it.

Up until 3,000 years before Christ, pre-European civilizations were based on the celebration of life.
They adored a fertility goddess.
And the sociologist Riane Eisler said, they believed in linking more than in ranking.
There was no “ranking” between men and women: they completed each other, and their joint power doubled.
In these civilizations, as Merlin Stone said it, God was a woman.

What’s so different about women?

The question for modern women is: what’s so different about women?
What’s the unique tribute that we can bring to the world today?
I believe that women have a special legacy, and that today we have the possibility and responsibility to bring it to power.
Women’s DNA is wired with birth and caregiving,
a characteristic that has enabled the success of our species as much as
our ability to hunt, or perhaps even more so.
For there is no other species in Nature that needs caregiving as much as ours, after birth.
And in no other species, as much as in ours, being social is a unique way to survive.
It’s always been like this.
It’s a very powerful template,
that women can embody and project,
bringing a new perspective to the world.

We react differently

In the year 2000, a research professor Shelley Taylor revealed that when threatened, women don’t respond with “fight or flight”.
She wrote: From an evolutionary standpoint, women evolved as caregivers.
In the “fight or flight” model, if women fight and lose, then they are leaving an infant behind.
By the same token, it’s a lot harder to run away if you are carrying an infant and you’re not going to leave it behind.

So, how do women react when threatened? What’s their own adaptive model?
First, research found that women under stress typically spend more time tending to their children.
This tending instinct is something so rooted in women that they don’t need to be biological mothers to have it.
Second, females in times of stress also form tight social bonds, to seek out for others.
This is the so-called befriending instinct. It means that in stressful situations women forge alliances, they avoid fights, they rely on interdependencies.
That’s also women’s primary instinct.

How heavily do you see that the “fight or flight” model influences our current model of power?
How amazing would it be to enrich it with a more female, tend-and-befriend attitude?
That’s how women can contaminate power, with care and alliances.
A model that comes from an evolutionary template so close and easy to us.

Caring leadership is a natural instinct

How do we lay the foundations of this power, where do we learn its practices?
And especially, how can we share them with the world?I’ve got good news for you: we have everything already.
Everything at hand, everything at home.
Like all of you, I have a very engaging job. And I return home every day.
At home, my children bring me back to the grounded meaning of life.
They provide me with inspiration and reality. What’s more, they complete my deepest thoughts with the concrete details of life.
They feed my heart with the love I need to re-charge.
Being with them connects me to the high and the low, to the small and the huge, to the now and forever.
All this is impossible to leave behind, for a mother.
All this, which could be experienced by men and women alike, can reconnect power to the reality of life, giving it back the roots it’s been missing for too long.

John Stuart Mill said that “there are no absolute economic laws: the choices we make are political, and in the end they are human choices.”
So, things don’t have to be as they have always been!
If we reconnect power to life, if we bring it closer to reality, magic things will happen.
In the newspapers, we will read more about the education of our children and less about the latest results of a financial trade.
We shall stop considering it to be normal that it takes a football player a day to earn what a school teacher earns in a year.
Fan clubs will appear where people will cheer for the end of poverty,
with the same passion and energy we see today for the Champions League finals.
I can’t wait for the day we will stop considering war as an expression of power.
And start celebrating a power which is about life, again.

It’s all about life

Bringing life back into power:
that’s how women can change the world.
This power resonates with women from the very deep roots of who we are,
calling us through our responsibility towards life,
which cannot be limited only to our households anymore.
We have to play this game.
And because we won’t adapt to it, we will make it better for everybody.
Still similar to men, and more similar to women.
We are not called to do this because it’s “fair”
and not because women “should be represented”.
This is not about helping women.
It’s about helping the world through women.