Young women demonstrating intersectional feminist leadership through social justice activism for the environment

Leadership for Social Justice: Practicing Intersectional Feminism

Leadership is a dirty word.

In 2020, we saw the ways leadership contributed to a deeply divided world.

The 45th President of the United States, whose time in office was memorably characterized by Muslim-bans, border detention centers, and promises of ‘the wall’, empowered white extremists and exacerbated public anger over persistent racial injustice.

Donald Trump giving the thumbs up while Mike Pence applauds him in front of a large screen of the American flag highlights the urgent need for intersectional feminist leadership.
Photograph by History in HD

Across the pond, the Conservatives heralded an election victory on the promise to “forge a new Britain” through a ‘Brexit’ campaign that fervently stoked anti-immigration sentiments.

Yet despite the very real problems with leadership, the romance with leadership appears to be holding strong. While few people can agree on what leadership is, many believe it’s important and urgently needed. They anxiously try to convince everybody and themselves that they’re doing ‘leadership’.

Before we rush to idolize leaders and celebrate leadership, we need to reckon with the problems of leadership theory and practice. In this post, I’ll explore what intersectional feminist leadership might look like when it’s exercised towards social justice.

Related: What is Intersectional Feminism? A Definitive Guide

First, let’s clarify…

What is Leadership?

At its core, leadership refers to the practice of social influence and change. It seeks to direct the consciousness and actions of people towards a vision. 

Leadership is a Social Construct

Leadership is socially constructed.

Leadership doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is born out of how people characterize, enact, persuade, and negotiate what they call ‘leadership’.

For decades, leadership theorists attempted to discover a core, universal ‘truth’ of leadership. Yet the more we studied leadership, the more confusing leadership appeared to become.

Leadership has now seeped into all the nooks and crannies of our social life. Under ever-expanding prefixes of political-, organizational-, community-, school-, group-, thought- and self-leaderships, it feels like anything and everything can be considered ‘leadership’.

Because there’s no essential meaning, some critics argue that leadership is a blank canvas on which theorists and consultants can paint beautiful illusions that capture our desires and sell development programs.

Leadership is Shaped by Power

confederate statue leadership
Photograph by Dean Hinnant

Leadership has always been a love song to imperialism, whiteness, and patriarchy.

The earliest formations of leadership took shape around the values of the European Enlightenment, which instated a rigid racial hierarchy.

At the center of leadership theory stood the figure of the autonomous European man from whom leadership gloriously emanated. He represented “orderliness, rationality and self-control” while the racial Others he colonized and enslaved represented “chaos, irrationality, violence and the breakdown of self-regulation”.

Built on the back of colonial subjugation, leadership was infused from the outset with idealizations of white men’s moral and intellectual superiority that granted them the birthright to govern others.

Leadership development programs venerated colonialist ideals of individual heroism, self-assurance, and social impact, compelling its participants to fashion themselves after such fantasies of white masculinity.

Leadership should therefore not be something unquestioningly and uncritically idolized.

As a first step, we need to ask if ‘leadership’ really is the most appropriate solution to every situation.

Despite the enthusiasm in English-speaking capitalist cultures to call ourselves ‘leaders’ and what we do ‘leadership’, many people who take on the title are not meaningfully engaging in work that really counts as leadership.

There are other, admittedly less glamorous, but more accurate and precise terms that describe what so-called ‘leaders’ do.

Administration, coordination, collaboration, communication, supervision, team building, and decision making may be more useful descriptors for the day-to-day activities of people whose work involves responsibility to others.

Relinquishing broad brush illusions of leadership may also allow us to name the activities conducted in governments, organizations, and communities that may have been obfuscated by the romance with leadership, including domination, discrimination, exclusion, and violence.

Intersectional Feminist Leadership Principles

So what would leadership look like if it challenged its colonialist foundations?

Intersectional feminist leadership is directed towards a vision that seeks to dismantle interlocking systems of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, cis-heteronormative, and patriarchal oppression.

An intersectional feminist practice of leadership would embody the values of social justice. Such a practice would also bear the following principles:

  1. Advance the aims of ending all oppression and exploitation within the interlocking systems of power of its social history and context. Leadership is understood as simply the means to achieve the vision of social transformation.
  2. Center marginalized people, especially Black, Indigenous, women of color who have traditionally been sidelined from the work of leadership. This goes beyond the superficial appointment of a woman of color to a position of authority. Marginalized people and their interests need to be continually centered in the strategies and activities of the organization.
  3. Focus on leading — the ongoing processes of listening, learning, collaboration, coordination, and social change, rather than leaders — the heroized individuals who hold positions of power.
  4. Nurture the collective over the individual. Within the limitations of the practice, to shift towards distributed, dispersed, shared, and collective power, rather than hierarchy. Know this will likely be a struggle in communities and cultures that normalize hierarchy. Cultures like my own assume that a ’command and control’ approach to leadership is the most effective, expedient, and legitimate form of organizing.

One point worth repeating is that the principles of feminist leadership are not simply about appointing women as leaders.

In our current postfeminist times, it has become fashionable to think of feminism as being about getting lots of high-profile, celebrity female executives.

However, what a lot of these highly privileged (cisgender, straight, able-bodied, white, middle-class) corporate women have demonstrated is that oppression and exploitation have no gender.

In this vein, feminist leadership is confused with ‘feminine’ leadership. And by feminine, some guides promote old-fashioned stereotypes of femininity as about being exclusively nurturing, caring, gentle, sociable, helpful, and inclusive.

These ideas about women and their leadership reinforce restrictive gender roles. That is, of course, not to say that women should aspire to be uncaring and unhelpful but to recognize that the answer is to challenge, not reinforce, these pernicious gender stereotypes, roles, and hierarchies.

Intersectional feminist leadership is about social transformation.

It doesn’t subscribe to essentialist assumptions about gender, sexuality, race, or dis/ability. Rather, it seeks to dismantle the power systems that confine all of us into limiting categorizations. Intersectional feminist leadership pursues a world where we could relate to one another in truly liberatory ways.

You’ll find a younger me delivering a seminar about my research after my first year working as a research fellow at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. I share the budding sprouts of these ideas about leadership in the video below.

What Does Intersectional Feminist Leadership Feel Like?

If you’ve ever worked within an organization or collective that adopted intersectional feminist leadership practices, it likely made an indelible mark.

The aspects of that experience aren’t simply a list of policies and procedures that can be easily checked off. Intersectional feminism is intangible. It’s felt in the body.

Related: Intersectionality in the Workplace: Creating Justice, Not Inclusion

  • Intersectional feminist leadership is non-hierarchical. Power is shared as much as possible and those who claim it check their privileges and pass it to those who are marginalized.
  • It is profoundly humanizing. The organization or collective holds space for your whole self beyond a ‘resource’ whose primary purpose is to produce value for the organization. Your personal lives, your bodies, your needs, and your disabilities are embraced and nurtured. You feel seen.
  • It is relational. Intersectional feminist leadership shows respect to the dignities of others. When breakdowns, problems, or failures need to be discussed, communication is non-violent, respectful, and even loving. It seeks genuine and meaningful dialogue and values feedback.
  • It is critically reflexive. Reflexive refers to the process of critical self-assessment and analysis. It recognizes that patriarchy has no gender and white supremacy has no race. That we are all inculcated in the systems of oppression that pervade our culture. As such, the process of decolonizing our minds is an ongoing struggle rather than a one-off achievement. It remains committed to challenging destructive leadership norms and practices.
  • It seeks to bring about social transformation. Intersectional feminist leadership challenges the imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy. It rejects the status quo of dominator culture and reimagines a world free of oppression and exploitation.
Five strong, beautiful Black and Brown women standing and sitting around a table, looking intensely at the camera. This is what feminist leadership looks like.
Photograph by Retha Ferguson

Intersectional Feminist Leadership Training and Development

An unconventional leadership practice requires unconventional training and development frameworks.

Traditional mainstream leadership development programs focus on competencies such as “communicating a vision”, “modeling ethical behavior”, and “charismatic influence”. However, the last decade of research has suggested that competencies-based training oversimplifies leadership to a set of traits and behaviors and neglects its full relational, contextual, and embodied aspects.

As so much of leadership is tacit, non-reflective, and non-conscious; improvised through the mundane day-to-day interactions between people, intersectional feminist leadership requires practice-based training that explores the subtler aspects of leadership.

Leaders need to engage in conscious dialogue and conflict processes, critically-oriented reflective and collective sense-making, and experiential exercises to explore their tacit knowledge of leadership.

This approach allows leaders to develop a heightened awareness of their intuitive ‘habits’ while providing the opportunity to unlearn established norms of practice.

Although this developmental practice is ideally facilitated and guided by a coach, there are some ways you can engage in reflexive self-development. This process requires regularly checking in with yourself and critically assessing how power moves in and through you.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Whose interests are taking precedence? Whose needs are being met? Whose aims and goals are defining the priorities of the collective? Whose voices are being heard? Whose voices are sidelined or silenced?
  • In what ways is the organization reproducing the normative assumptions and practices of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy? In what ways is the organization subverting it? How am I complicit in domination and oppression? How can I challenge that tendency within myself?
  • Are workers being adequately compensated for their physical, intellectual, and emotional labor? Are they working in a (physically and psychoemotionally) safe environment? How can they be better cared for?

Redeeming Leadership

I’ve been an organizational leadership scholar since 2012 when I was awarded my PhD at the University of Sydney. Over the next few years, I conducted extensive research into varied forms of leadership from billionaire philanthropists, managers of color, and grassroots organizers, in attempts to explore the possibilities for a radical leadership practice.

Helena Liu holds up a copy of her book, Redeeming Leadership, for intersectional feminist leadership practices towards social justice
Me with my book, Redeeming Leadership

In 2020, I published my first book, which collates the findings of all my research. Redeeming Leadership challenges the violent imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal ideologies within leadership theorizing and practice. I then draw on the traditions of anti-racist feminisms in order to offer redemptive possibilities for ‘leadership’ that may be exercised from the values of justice, solidarity, and love.

If you enjoyed this post, my book goes much more in-depth into the ideas I’ve shared here. Readers of my newsletter Moon Rites receive access to a library of my publications with the full first chapter of the book.

Intersectional feminist leadership challenges our fundamental ideas about leadership itself.

Cultivating an intersectional feminist practice enables us to confront the systems of oppression in our society and challenge the violent hierarchies that have made leaders and leadership so seductive in our culture.

Freeing ourselves from the romantic illusions of leadership will allow us to share power and nurture a principled and humanizing community geared towards social transformation.

Learn More

Jackie Ford and Nancy Harding. (2007). Move over management: We are all leaders now. Management Learning, 38(5), 475–493. This article is a sophisticated and witty examination of how our romance with leadership supplanted traditional practices of management.

Helena Liu (2017). Reimagining ethical leadership as a relational, contextual and political practice. Leadership, 13(3), 343–367. The ideas about practice-based leadership development are also explored in this earlier article.

Suze Wilson (2016). Thinking Differently about Leadership: A Critical History of Leadership Studies. Edward Elgar Publishing. This is one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated analyses of the history of leadership theory.

Helena Liu (2020) Redeeming Leadership: An Anti-Racist Feminist Intervention

Featured image by Andrew Neel

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