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Servant Leadership and Gender Equality

Cut-off in mid-sentence, confused and a little stunned, I watched as my carefully planned seminar appeared to unravel. Several of my participants were having a disagreement about something. Others nodded their heads in agreement; a few clearly had other thoughts. I wondered, “Had I said something offensive?”

Turning to my translator, I asked her to give me the gist of the animated dialog going on between my participants. “It’s not you,” she said. “They love what you’re teaching them about servant leadership. But they are struggling with how to make it work in all their different situations. They don’t understand how to connect the theory with their reality.”

This past month I took my first trip to Afghanistan. I had been invited to present seminars on servant leadership to several groups. One group—a last minute addition to the schedule—consisted of 40 women who headed various departments and organizations within the Afghan government. What had originally been set to be a short half-day seminar had morphed at the last minute into a 3-day event. While my other workshops were presented to English-speaking groups, this presentation had to be presented in Dari, the variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. Subtle concepts like servant leadership required careful translation.

My teaching partner and I put our heads together at the first break and brainstormed some solutions that helped us deliver value for the remainder of the seminar. As I usually do at the end of all my seminars and workshops, I went around the room asking each of the participants to share a little bit of what ideas they were going to take away and implement after they returned to work. In an impassioned speech that she had typed out in advance, one woman, a university professor, spoke for the group (partially quoted, partially paraphrased):

We grew up in the middle of war, at the heart of violence, discrimination, exclusions. But we have learned from our childhood period to not abandon, to not accept the breakage, to go away and don’t beck against hundreds [of] problems. As women and mothers we tried twice as hard as men to pass from a path which wasn’t smooth, wasn’t short and easy. We grew up in a society which doesn’t believe [in] equal rights for women even though [today] we sit in management chairs.

And here’s what touched my heart and challenged my soul:

We want to know [from you] how we can pass from this situation successfully. Show us the research and studies of women like us who have struggled with similar fates and, if possible, share with us the secrets of their success. Where do we start? How do we manage the tension between women managers and our [male] employees who continue to exhibit their physical power, economic power, and of course their political power? This you must teach us in your future programs.

As I stood and listened to what was on the group’s heart, I promised I would return with materials to facilitate their discovery. But, as I said to them, the answer can’t come from me. After all, I said, I am neither a woman, nor an Afghan. As empathetic as I might be, I am hampered by my own cultural and sexual identity. The answers that will work for them must come from them. At best, I can only hope to facilitate the conversation. My vision is that I could return with examples and testimonies from women in other emerging societies who have made progress in the area of gender equality.

(Originally published in 2019 by Bizcatalyst360)

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