Women's circles (and how they're gonna change the world)

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I’ve always been a mouthy, precocious little bugger. I say this with deep love for myself, but it's true... I was the kid at school voted “Most likely to be Prime Minister”, I turned every discussion into a debate, and my favourite activity was “being proved right”, which, according to me, happened rather frequently.

So an organisation dedicated to developing the next generation of spiritual leaders seems like the perfect place for me and my big ego. Right?

During my first encounter with Women of Spirit and Faith (WSF), I saw women at the front of the conference room, and immediately assumed that they were our “leaders”. I also assumed that I would soon be one of them.  Then something strange happened: they began turning to everyone in the room, asking what we thought, what we felt, what our experiences were, and what we thought wanted to emerge next.  I was baffled. “What are they doing asking everyone? “ I wondered.

The next day I got another taste of this feminine leadership style. When a group of young women decided that we wanted to talk about mentoring, we were encouraged to host our own circle. Circle practices are vital to the new leadership paradigm because in circle all participants are equally close to the center, and therefore equally valued. Hierarchy just doesn't fit into the shape of a circle. Though I would have denied it at the time, valuing all people equally wasn’t exactly on my agenda that day. After everyone sat down, I put on my most competent face, and took control, even though I didn’t have the faintest idea what a circle was. I guess it was my way of putting myself up front again, of letting them know I was “a future leader”. It came from arrogance, and from the simultaneous fear that I was worthless if people didn’t see me as special.

But nobody shut me down; they simply sat quietly. And it was their total trust that the circle would allow what needed to happen to happen, which enabled me to do something I had never done before. After an awkward minute or two of using the Roberts’s Rules format – the only tool I had at that point – I stopped, listened to my heart and said: “I don’t think I can run this circle the way it wants to be run. Is any woman here who feels she can better facilitate?” There was a brief pause, in which I began to feel disappointed in myself. Then a woman elder lovingly stepped forward and we had one of the most powerful circles I have ever attended.

 A beautiful moment at one of our WSF gatherings 

A beautiful moment at one of our WSF gatherings 

 

So what exactly is circle? To start with, it's a gathering of people (in this case women) that can meet daily, weekly, monthly or as often as you want. To me it feels very different to other kinds of gatherings I experience because of the extreme sense of safety I feel in circle. Here is what makes circle safe: 

  • In circle we speak from the heart and from our own experience; we don't preface our thoughts by claiming expertise or to know better than others. For me, this made it feel soooo different to conferences or classrooms I spent so much time in, where I believed I needed to back up what I said, and prove it somehow. In circle there's no need to prove what we are saying, because it is our feelings, our experience, our life we are talking about, and the only proof we need of that is that we feel, experience and live those things ourselves. 
  • Because everyone is speaking for themselves, there is also no feedback or crosstalk, unless someone specifically requests it. We learn to hear other people say painful or difficult things without trying to jump in to advise or fix them. In our society we often want to move from the feeling stage to the fixing stage; in circle we are allowed to sink into which ever stage we need to be in.
  • Everything that is said stays in the circle. If we discuss with others who were not there, we exclude the names of other women unless she has given us explicit permission to do so. This takes the potential for gossip off the table and allows us to share freely without fearing future repercussions. 

In this new paradigm, leadership is about stepping up when you feel called, and stepping back when you don’t.  It’s about listening to your heart, and to Spirit – however you encounter Her/Him/It – and being willing to play the role that only you can play. Each person is important in his or her own right, but it is the circle that leads, not any individual. This was the key point I made in “Part I” of this blog. The way we have experienced leadership for many centuries has been based upon a hero worship that has placed leadership in personality traits or in particular roles and titles. The new paradigm does not focus on leaders per se, but on leadership practices.

 

So who is a leader? At Women of Spirit and Faith, anyone who sits in one of our circles is already a leader because leadership is located in the circle, not in you or in me. This shift in emphasis allows us all to take responsibility for what happens, as well as forcing us to trust The Mystery. I have facilitated many circles since that day at the conference, but I don’t take credit for how they turn out, and I no longer think that my job is to give people answers, (which is lucky, because often I don’t have any). A circle holder simply provides the loving space for answers to emerge. Which they often do.

Of course, though I do try to keep it in check, my oversized ego is still lurking. Anyone who knows me will tell you I still talk too much, and I have occasionally been known to sound patronising.  Luckily, circle is big and strong enough to absorb our character defects, which allows us to act from our best selves when it really counts. In fact one of the thing that makes circle so powerful is that it can hold the strengths and weaknesses of all its participants and somehow be more potent because of the mix of it all. It is true alchemy at work, turning lead into gold over and over again. 

In short, collaborative leadership practices –  and there are several different forms, circle being just one – enable anyone to show up as the imperfect people they are, to admit that they don’t always know what the plan is, and then to be part of leadership anyway. In this humble way we are being guided to envision a new world, and collectively taking steps towards creating it.