On women and transformational leadership: My conversation with a UN Women Zimbabwe driver
‘.. the future of Zimbabwe depends on women. When I compare my day to day experiences in UN Women with those elsewhere, where I have worked before, I feel more empowered than the women themselves. Where I was working before my duties were limited to just driving, deliveries and performing other office menial errands as my bosses saw fit. In UN Women I am encouraged to perform additional valuable tasks that enrich my knowledge skills, tasks that were often limited to programmes staff only where I have worked before. I am not treated as a subordinate but as a colleague by all women in the office, and the policy is that we share tasks as need be. I do not feel out of place at all. I am motivated and I want to learn more on women’s rights so that I can bring impact to UN Women spaces.” UN Women driver
I am sitting in a food café in Bulawayo over lunch with my colleague, one of the two male office drivers we have for our country office. Bulawayo is close to 600 kilometres away from Harare, where the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) country office is located. The mission is a validation exercise for a gender gap analysis study commissioned by UN Women to establish the basis for mainstreaming gender in the curriculum of security sector academic institutions in Zimbabwe. This lunch meeting for me as a ‘citizen journalist’ presents a rare opportunity to formulate useful conversations with a male colleague around what it means for him to work in a female led agency for women where men are seriously in the minority.
The conversation was is vernacular, but I have tried to do direct translation in order to capture this driver’s exact words, ‘.the future of Zimbabwe depends on women. When I compare my day to day experiences in UN Women with those elsewhere, where I have worked before, I feel more empowered than the women themselves. Where I was working before my duties were limited to just driving, deliveries and performing other office errands for menial jobs as my bosses saw fit. In UN Women I am encouraged to perform additional tasks that enrich my knowledge skills, tasks that were often limited to programmes staff only where I have worked before. I am not treated as a subordinate but as a colleague by all women in the office, and the policy is that we share tasks as need be. I do not feel out of place at all. I am motivated and I want to learn more on women’s rights so that I can bring impact to UN Women spaces.”
In my view this driver’s response is charged with political significance. He articulates in short and simple terms a vision once propounded by Burns (1978) concerning transformational leaders; that they are effective, inspire their followers and nurture their ability to contribute to the organisation. It had no struck me at all, before this conversation, that women’s behaviour as leaders could be under the scrutiny of all their staff members, including support staff, and it could be an issue of special interest in an institution. Truly so, as more women enter leadership roles in society, the expectation that they carry out these roles differently than men attracts increasing attention, at least in part, because women are infrequent occupants of high-level leadership roles, but for UN Women and its leaders, the reasons can take us back to the reasons for this important agency’s formation and the mandate that it holds in the development arena.
The 50/50 campaign began in 1999 as a global effort aimed at achieving gender equality in political representation. This issue of gender equality now holds the centre of all efforts aimed at achieving the vision of a common future that will ensure economic well-being, improvement of the standards of living and quality of life, freedom and social justice and peace and security for all people. In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly created UN Women. This was an historic step in accelerating the Organization’s goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women, to build on the important work of four previously distinct parts of the UN system, which focused exclusively on gender equality and women’s empowerment.
At a deeper level, the formation of UN Women is much more political than it seems. In my view, the goal was not limited to providing mechanisms for accelerating the UN’s efforts on gender equality and empowerment of women, but was a shift to the realisation and recognition of the unique alternatives that women leaders can provide to tackle the globe’s challenges wrought by gender inequalities. In simpler and more direct terms, the serious challenges the mainstream UN system had previously faced in its efforts to promote gender equality globally could better be addressed by putting women themselves at the centre of the matrix. This however is not to disregard the significant progress the UN had already made in advancing gender equality, “including through landmark agreements such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).” (www.unwomen.org)
In this article I focus on women’s leadership style/s, and I rely much on the definition of leadership style as relatively stable patterns of behaviour displayed by leaders (Engen et al: 2003). The disclaimer is that this article is not comparing UN Women female leaders to any specific male leaders in Zimbabwe and elsewhere but yes, is to some extent comparing them to general models of male leadership that the author has seen existing both outside and within the UN system itself. The article also takes valid recognition of the fact that women are not homogenous, and that not all women are necessarily good leaders. Admittedly, given my feminist positioning, the article is biased towards highlighting positive models of women’s leadership styles using examples drawn from my lived everyday realities in my workspace, the UN Women country office. My line of argument is therefore that given fair and equal opportunity, women present the best transformative leadership styles.
The importance of research highlighting any differences between women and male leaders has often been minimised in mainstream scholarship (e.g see Powell, 1990). However, the possibility that women and men differ in their typical leadership behaviour is important and cannot be ignored in development discourse because leaders’ own behaviour is a major determinant of their effectiveness and chances for advancement, not only for themselves but also for their followers.
I joined UN Women a year after its formation, in 2011. What struck me negatively at one go was the bureaucratic nature of processes which, coupled with the then unclear politics of my country then headed by a government of national unity often threatened to bring all programming efforts to a stand-still on a day to day basis. This was however encountered with what I found to be highly transformative leadership style of the then Country Representative who has since left the country office. In this leader I saw day to day affirmations that everything was possible with continuous trials using different, varied and well thought out strategies. I also watched day today the woman leader establishing herself as a role model by firstly gaining the trust and confidence of her followers, whilst also growing the same sense of confidence in them individually. Her open door policy, her practical on the job mentoring and positive affirmation of staff’s efforts through her ‘Good job!” adage encouraged some of us to do good so as to receive more. This was however done with no compromise for devotion and quality, and from this we learnt never to leave a task undone until the following day. There was also the positive spirit of consultation that was all inclusive and made every member of staff confident of their involvement in the country office’s programme development. Owing to all this, the confusion of sustaining a youngest agency in a country fraught with political and economic contradictions was made possible by these positive tenets of leadership.
UN Women Zimbabwe is currently run by a Deputy Country Representative, pending recruitment of the Substantive Country Representative. The former Country Representative’s words during a Skype meeting she held with us to welcome the Deputy Representative into the office on her first day still stick with me, “You are in safe hands guys!” Yes, she called us guys often, because in her woman’s heart and eye our different ‘portfolios’ did not spell out any differences in terms of our womanhood and what we could offer differently, each according to her and his unique capabilities. She exhibited a different model of power, power with us as opposed to power over us, and this attribute is mostly typical of women leaders.
I was not very sure of what she meant by those six words, “You are in safe hands guys!” At the time my country was slowly transforming itself from government of national unity status to a ZANU PF led one, and there was so much looming confusion and uncertainty for future programming. At such a time we were also losing a leader the majority of us in the office had banked so much confidence in, so how safe were we? Admittedly again, I have slowly but surely watched the hand of a committed woman transform the fears and confusions into stable reality for the country office. Of most importance to the driver’s testimony above, I have seen support staff participating and contributing useful ideas for the development of our country programming while at the same time gaining more and more confidence as they develop their writing, spelling and other skills in the process. I continue to see the same models of an open door policy, collective consultation before adopting decisions and open encouragement to staff.
According to Burns, transformational leaders have democratic and participative qualities; they state future goals and develop plans to achieve them. They are never satisfied with the status quo but keep innovation in place even when the organisations they leader are generally successful. By mentoring and empowering their followers, transformational leaders encourage them to develop their full potential and thereby to contribute more capably to their organisation. Conger and Kanungo (1998) have labelled the same leaders as charismatic leaders. When we nurture and mentor men positively, we foster a positive shift in patriarchal mindsets. I have my biases towards women and I don’t regret them, I will always believe that women are the best leaders.