(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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Two years ago during a Democratic Party primary debate, Hillary Clinton was asked if she was a moderate or a progressive. The question was posed because of accusations that Ms. Clinton was not a true progressive.
Ms. Clinton replied to the question by saying this, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Her response was a defense not only of her thinking, but also that of women in general. Many women are progressives, but their approach is different from that of men. There is, I believe, a gender difference between how women and men are forward thinking or progressive.
Ms. Clinton’s response, therefore, highlights my topic this morning. As you may know, my series theme this month is “Feminine Values that Should Rule the World.” Last Sunday I discussed emotional intelligence as a leadership quality that many experts consider is a mostly feminine attribute. Today, I want to look at looking forward as another leadership quality that is mostly feminine.
I cited last week the Harvard Business Review study and poll of 64,000 people in 53 countries around the world asking them to state the qualities they most want in their political, business, spiritual and non-profit leaders. These same people were later asked whether they thought the qualities they listed are mostly feminine or mostly masculine attributes. Of the top ten leadership qualities listed by all those polled, all but one were considered by respondents as mostly feminine. Emotional intelligence ranked number one. Looking forward was number two. To put it simply, a majority of women and men around the world believe that having a forward thinking approach is an attribute they highly desire in their leaders and it is a mostly feminine one.
Forward thinking is generally defined as being progressive, dynamic, bold, pioneering, modern and innovative. Interestingly, several of these qualities are often viewed as mostly masculine traits. To be traditionally masculine is to be bold, dynamic and innovative. They are not qualities most people would associate as mostly feminine.
And yet, as Hillary Clinton pointed out about herself, she is a forward thinker – a progressive. How can she, or any woman for that matter, be progressive if it means one must be bold and dynamic? Is there a possible disconnect between the genders about just what constitutes forward thinking? I believe progressivism in women is different and it is exactly what the worlds needs today.
To be clear, women in the United States are overall more progressive than men. Voting patterns as well as beliefs about many social issues prove it. In last year’s election, 53% of women voters supported Ms. Clinton compared with 41% of male voters who supported her. That gender gap was true for whites and blacks – more women from each racial group supported her than did men. More women support gay rights and marriage equality than do men. More women support gun control and military disarmament than do men. And more women oppose the death penalty and support the Affordable Health Care Act than do men.
Interestingly, however, most female forward thinking is far more nuanced than such data indicates. Women are forward thinking in the way that Hillary Clinton described herself.
According to this view, many women are what I call practical forward thinkers. Men tend to be focused on the philosophy and politics of an issue, while women in general focus on finding solutions and making sure that whatever belief they hold, a workable answer is a priority.
According to the Harvard Business Review, many men excel at being forward thinking visionaries and they lead accordingly. They offer a compelling vision in such a way that prompts others to follow. But men being men, most of those who are considered visionary leaders are lone wolves. They create a vision and they alone express it to others and then act as the sole leader.
And that is strikingly different from how many women approach problems. In general, women collaborate and seek other ideas of how to fix something. Women, in other words, tend to focus on finding practical, common sense answers. They care less about themselves appearing as bold leaders, as they care about working with multiple people to find a solution that is bold and innovative. Looking forward for women, therefore, is not about debate and being a leader, it’s about making sure the desired outcome actually happens.
An example of this approach is how the Premier of Canada’s Northwest Territories addressed that province’s issue of fighting poverty. Typically, the problem became a political argument between conservative and liberal men. Conservatives advocated for less government involvement and liberals essentially wanted more government involvement. Eva Aariak, the Premier of the Northwest Territories, refused to engage in that debate. Instead, she enlisted the advice of stakeholders in the poverty problem. She convened listening sessions with community, neighborhood and family groups to hear their thoughts. She found that most people wanted government assistance to fight poverty, but that anti-poverty programs should be run and determined by each village and neighborhood – not by the central government.
Ms. Aariak adopted polices to channel funds to various localities but then let them decide how best to use the dollars. This allowed communities to be flexible and to determine assistance on an individual by individual basis. Some people need funds for education. Others who are unable to work need direct financial help. Still others need tough love to work or learn.
This relatively novel approach was called by Premier Aariak a bottom up approach. It was not conservative or liberal, and it was not run by those in power. But it was a new, forward thinking idea, crafted by multiple people at the grass roots level, that actually worked. It fit Hillary Clinton’s definition of being progressive in a way that accomplishes something.
In the Harvard Business Review article, one female corporate CEO described her leadership this way: “I don’t see myself as particularly visionary in the creative sense. I see myself as pulling and putting together pieces of information or observations that lead to possible strategies and future opportunities.”
This executive’s progressivism is built on collaboration – a mostly feminine quality I’ll look at next week. Unlike many men, her approach is not to debate and engage in a competition of ideas. Instead, she pulls together many ideas, from many people, and assembles them into a solution. No individual is the owner of the solution. Everybody owns it. No person comes out the winner. Everybody wins. That is a mostly feminine quality that should rule the world – one where argument and competition are reduced and compromise and consensus prevail.
Stephen Prothero, author of the book “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections), asserts that men are often the driving force behind conservative culture wars – ones against gay rights, abortion, feminism, sexual liberation, and secularization. Men are often those who are “anxious about the loss of old orders and the emergence of new ones.” Politicians use culture wars to gain their votes and get themselves elected. For instance, non-college educated white men were the predominant demographic group who supported Donald Trump in last year’s election. Their anxiety over loss of jobs and economic opportunity was and is real. Their concerns were exploited by Trump in his attacks against immigrants, Muslims, people of color and women – all of whom he implied are taking away white male jobs. But while Trump won the election, Professor Prothero says he is likely to not win the overall culture war.
Indeed, he points out that none of the culture wars have been successful since women won the right to vote in 1920 – primarily because women have added their forward thinking values to the national debate.
Their values may have seemed to lose – as they have in several elections over the past hundred years. But mostly feminine forward thinking has nevertheless prevailed. That was due, I believe, to the up from the bottom, ground level ideas and changes offered by many people. We saw that in the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s, in the LGBTQ equal rights and marriage equality movement, and now in the feminist MeToo effort and Black Lives Matter protests. We are beginning to see such success in the gun control effort – spurred not by any particular leader, but by thousands of grass roots youth – many of whom are female.
The implications of this are significant. On a spiritual level, forward thinking is foundational. Every world religion is based on the need for change – inwardly in people, and outwardly in society. One’s heart must first perceive his or her self-focused way of thinking. By changing that, one perceives new ways to interact with others and be more at peace. I assert that any form of honest spirituality moves one forward from selfishness – to selflessness.
Once people have so changed, societies can then change too. Rightly applied, spirituality leads large groups of people to embrace a concern for others – for the marginalized, the poor, for those who have little hope.
This spiritual value of change is also mostly feminine. Men have it too, but the poll I mentioned earlier indicates most people around the world believe more women have it than do men. That confirms why women often comprise a majority in churches and spiritual organizations. They, along with men who think the same, accept and want change in both themselves and in the world. Spiritually minded communities, like the Gathering at Northern Hills, are perhaps best aligned to not only be forward thinking, but to actually get things done.
As its name implies, conservatism on the other hand wants to look backwards, mostly due to fear of change. Don’t take a new job, don’t merge with another congregation, don’t try out new music, don’t adopt new technologies, don’t examine and change inner flaws. Maintaining the status quo, as we know, is not a healthy strategy. Change and forward thinking define the universe, and must define our lives.
And looking forward should incorporate many of the mostly feminine qualities needed to be effective – ones like emotional intelligence, listening, collaboration, and reasonableness. To look forward in ways that will succeed, multiple people need to participate and be heard. Progress is not measured by the accomplishments of lone wolf leaders, but by the collective work of many.
This speaks to values at work in this congregation and ones we seek to follow. We don’t as much talk about problems, as we try to do something about them – even in small ways. We are like Hillary Clinton – we’re progressives who get things done. And we do so not because I or the Board says something is good to do – but because all of you, the congregation, collectively believe its good to do. It’s one thing to lament homelessness in our city. It’s quite another to jointly serve, love and assist the homeless. It’s one thing to decry racism. It’s quite another to admit vestiges of implicit bias in our congregation and ourselves, and then make conscious efforts to eliminate it. That’s the essence of honest spirituality – to believe in something so strongly that words are not enough. Deeds must be undertaken to prove a belief is sincere.
Most of all for us, who lament the direction our nation seems to be heading, we must try to see things in perspective. Culture wars against social progress will always happen. People will continue to be afraid of change. Culture wars will occasionally win elections that seemingly cause us to go backwards. The reassuring lessons of history and spirituality show us, however, that our nation and world have advanced in being more selfless in ways earlier generations would have never thought possible.
This current period of anger, hate and fear toward people who appear different – this too shall pass. It will not prevail over the long term and the seeds of its fall are already apparent. That will be due to the application of mostly feminine values – ones like having a forward thinking attitude. These values not only should rule the world, I believe they do in the hearts and minds of millions of women – and men who think alike.