Women and Facilitative Leadership

December 11, 2009 18 Comments

Yesterday,  I was honored to lead a workshop on Facilitative Leadership for 500 women at the 5th Annual Massachusetts Conference for Women.  Hosted by the MA Commission on the Status of Women, this mega-gathering attracted over 5,000 diverse women from corporate, government,  non-profit, and social change  sectors. The vibe was electric and eclectic – with a mix of  executives, teachers,  job-seekers, entrepreneurs, students, philanthropists, stay-at-home moms and many others.   It was a day of focus on issues “that matter most to women, including personal finance, business, entrepreneurship, health and work/life balance”.

My 60 minute session, “The Practice of Facilitative Leadership”, was what we at IISC would call an “experience” of our flagship, 3-day, course.  Up front, we acknowledged that, in this shifting socio-historical global context — anyone who claims to lead is merely improvising her way through unprecedented waters along with the rest of us.

Next, we cracked open a definition of Facilitative Leadership (Facilitative Leaders “create conditions for self-empowerment so that people can work together to achieve a common goal”) and looked at the Profile of a Facilitative Leader (see Curtis’ post of yesterday for more on the Profile, and its lovely focus on Love).

We introduced two of FL’s practical frameworks: 1) a strategy for leading discussions, Open, Narrow, Close:


and 2) a framework for measuring success, Focus on Results Process and Relationship:


The participants were highly engaged and asked great questions. Several women expressed resonance with the concepts, citing relevance to work in corporations, churches, community building  and consulting practices.  I took care to point out in this women’s gathering that Facilitative Leadership, with its emphasis on service (and love, even!),  is in no ways a wimpy, impotent, approach to leadership. Rather, shifts from more hierarchical, command and control leadership forms to more collaborative, decentralized approaches means that women — with our facilitative proclivities —  are being called upon by the zeitgeist.  Simply put:  the time has come, and women need to lead.

I sensed something sparkling in the air at MACFW.  Keynote speaker Suze Orman surely lit up the atmosphere with jarring statistical data on disparities between men and women workers. She challenged us to take more ownership of our earning, spending and investing habits. The intergenerational nature of the crowd was also a highlight.

While many of our trainings have more women than men, given the demographics of the social sector, the woman-centric focus of MACFW provided a unique space from which to consider Facilitative Leadership. It makes me think more about gender, power, and FL:  What are its benefits and challenges, given persistent gender injustice?  Given industry’s growing recognition of collaboration, emotional intelligence and relational skillfullness as desirable? Given what we know of the phenomenal women who lead us every day?


  • Curtis says:

    There was a great piece in the Christian Science Monitor earlier this year (written by a man) that suggested that women are more poised to lead in a world where linear thinking is less helpful and where holding the whole is critical. He ends by saying maybe it’s time for men to ask for direction and turn over the car keys.

  • Linda says:

    Great post Melinda. There’s some amazing work on women in leadership from the WCW as well, talking about how many of women’s ways of leading (collaboration, leading with, etc) are often unacknowledged, underappreciated and even “disappeared”. Sounds like a great day yesterday. Congrats!

  • Melinda says:

    @ Curtis LOL! “Turn over the car keys” – that says it all!
    @Linda – thank you. It was a great day. And love the term, “women’s ways”…of knowing, leading, wisdom.

  • Susan says:

    I’m in absolute resonance with this framework. Thank you for bringing it forward and creating energy around women leading in a new time. As well, I believe men and woman can collaborate in new ways, that transforms the way we do business and create positive social change. Organizations like IISC, might just look within and tell us a story of how this is possible.

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Thanks for sharing this experience, Melinda! It sounds like a really powerful one for all involved. I’d love to see your agenda and to know more about how you organized such a successful short workshop on the topic of facilitative leadership!

  • Curtis says:


    I appreciate what you are saying about the power of looking within!

    There was another article that came out this year about those corporations that have been most resilient during this tough financial stretch and linking this success with those that have had a balance of men and women on the board. It’s what we preach about diverse stakeholder inclusion and perspectives as a key to building both smarter solutions and resilience.

    Good stuff!


  • Melinda says:

    @Jen — thanks. Will do. It was a design challenge for sure, but I think it worked. The flow was pretty much as I outlined in the blog, with light touch Q & A throughout. Certainly a first for me with 500 participants! LOL. Also, thanks to IA’s Total Access for easy access to our FL charts in electronic form. Will post what I used on the conference website, as they encouraged us to be green about making copies.
    @Susan — yes! to be boldly transparent, there is a vision several of us hold here at IISC to have FL change the culture of the way we do business, hold meetings, do social change and govern. Its a matter of getting it out, sharing it, modeling it so that it becomes our new operating system. Thanks for the good work you do with individuals and organizations for your part in “being the change”. We’re open to any and all ideas you have and ways in which we can support your efforts in that direction.

    Im always so energized and inspired at how this material energizes and inspires!

  • Melinda says:

    @ Jen — also just emailed you my facilitator’s agenda for yesterday’s workshop. 60 minutes of turbo FL! LOL

  • Kimberly says:

    This is great! I agree that MOST women are socialized to be facilitative leaders. It comes pretty natural given the number of years of hands-on practice we get, even before reaching adulthood.

    Looks like you were in great company as well – very impressive list of presenters.

  • Katherine says:

    I came across this quote and came back here to share it.

    “Being a woman in leadership is like walking a tightrope without a net and the crowd is not necessarily cheering for you.” Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie

    If we are to succeed in making change in the world, I mean getting at the persistent problems that hinder our progress cause calamity and do harm, we have to harness the skills of collaboration.

  • Gibran says:

    Sounds like a whole field of resonance! It really is a time for shifting models!

  • Melinda says:

    @Katherine Go Bishop! Love the quote, and WILL be using it!
    @G-Force Instead of “Burn, baby, burn!” is it “Shift, baby, shift!”?!?!?! 😉

  • Kim says:

    I wish I’d been there!

    I learned a ton from your institute at a recent program for the institute of civic leadership in Maine. I was disappointed, though, at the lack of reference to the feminist underpinnings of idea of formal facilitative leadership (as a model). To me, it isn’t just that women are “naturally” good or even just that we’ve been socialized into the skills (although I think that is true, for better and for worse — more on that) but that there was political thinking about how organizations are themselves gendered and reflect and maintain gendered power relations, and thus changing models for decision making, leadership, organizational practice, etc. was an attempt at addressing power relations in a structural way. And it was an experiment… for some women, the pressure to be facilitative means drowning out their most powerful voice or trapping them in a house of mirrors where not being “nice” draws a big penalty, and then also is used to somehow make us less female (if women naturally know how to collaborate, what happens to the brilliant but bossy woman out there — and don’t we ever want her voice in the mix?)

    Lots to think about — and this is my work, so I’m lucky to think about it a lot — but I do hope that you’ll continue to draw in both a feminist analysis and a gendered analysis in your trainings!

  • Linda says:

    This is a great stream of thoughts. Kim, I especially appreciate your calling us back to the intent of changing structures through changing process – and YES we want the bossy women’s voices too! Love it!

  • cynthia parker says:

    I’m with Kim.one thing I value about our approach is the focus on what we can leanr and develop. Let’s not fall to the temptation of making succesful women’s leadership (even the useful distinctions of women’s leadership) a matter of being ‘born that way.’ There’s a lot to be said for examining how girls and women are socialized and how we cooperate (collude?) with-or even actively resist- socially constructed expectations of what we should be.

  • Did you say Women and Facilitative Leadership Interaction Institute for Social Change Blog Hahah

  • thomas says:

    Immense information there.
    best quotes

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