Voices of Athena

Sit down with the highly accomplished members of Athena Alliance, an executive learning community for women leaders, to hear the personal tales behind their professional success. We learn the real story behind their inspiring executive careers — their fears, their failures, and what song they’re singing at karaoke. You don’t get to the top without creating some memorable stories along the way.

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Reclaiming Feminine Leadership with Priscilla Brenenstuhl


Hello and welcome to Voices of Athena, a podcast highlighting some of the most successful women in business. I’m your host, Priscilla Brenenstuhl. I’m intrigued by people’s stories, particularly how those stories shape and shift experiences and culture. We are currently rewriting the narrative around leadership and I’m invested in shifting power dynamics to bring values and harmony to the forefront so that we can show up fully for ourselves and each other and create business models that enrich our society and our world. I believe that one of the ways we can find that balance is to reclaim feminine leadership. That is the focus of today’s show. Feminine Leadership. What is it? How do we access and embrace it and utilize the power it has to change the face of leadership as we know it?
I want to start by saying that when I’m speaking of feminine leadership, I’m not focusing on gender, though females are disproportionately impacted by rejection of the feminine. Feminine and masculine qualities exist in all genders, thus undervaluing feminine characteristics hurts men as well. We collectively stand to benefit from an effort to balance these forces.
So what is feminine leadership?
Feminine leadership utilizes feminine qualities such as receptivity, nurturing, intuition, and compassion in decision making. Goals are primarily structured around collaboration, restoration, and transformation. This naturally lends itself to a more people-centered approach, leaders working beyond their own self-interests to identify needs and guide change.
By contrast, masculine leadership is focused on action, achievements, and outcomes, with leaders approaching relationships as transactions based on reward and punishment. Presently, masculine qualities are given the most weight in leadership roles. We have a history of handing over power to the loudest and most outwardly confident voice in the room. While feminine attributes, like the ones I described, are undermined and labeled as soft skills. As a result, female leaders often adopt masculine leadership styles while males forgo the potential of their own feminine attributes. Individuals who predominately display feminine traits may be overlooked altogether.

I want to use the following, somewhat universally acknowledged, example of a feminine quality in action in the workplace. Females generally assume nurturing responsibilities outside the scope of their role- making coffee, planning and organizing birthday celebrations, cleaning up after, and checking in on others in the office. These actions often go unnoticed and are certainly undervalued in respect to their ability to foster relationships and community, creating a better work culture overall.
This is just one example of the consequences of this imbalance which is significantly more vast in scope- from burnout and broken families to environmental devastation. Hyper-fixation on achievements and business models that put profit over everything else will inevitably lead to our demise.
It is imperative that we reassess power dynamics and take a new approach to leadership, one that considers how intertwined we all are to each other and our environment when assessing progress and success. Honoring the polarities that exist within us and recognizing traits like nurturing as a leadership skill is a great place to start.
So how do we access and nurture the feminine?
Get vulnerable. Make time for an honest self-assessment of your own leadership style and how it aligns with your values.
For example, what do you think of when you hear the word vulnerable? If you have the opportunity, get a piece of paper and brain dump all the words that arise for you. Pay attention to the feelings that arise too. Do the words and feelings that are coming up feel powerful?
Reflect. Do you seek or shy away from opportunities to be vulnerable? When you cry, does that make you feel weak, do you apologize for it? How do you feel when other people cry in front of you? Do you get uncomfortable, freeze up, try to make them “better”? If you consider all of these questions and go a little deeper, ask yourself why?
Sit in the feelings that come up and the stories they hold. Don’t rush to name your feelings and rationalize them away, experience them moving through your body and listen for the ways they want to teach you. Allow yourself to become curious about all the things you think you have already figured out. Is there room to grow? Breathe. Deeper. Listen.
Listening is the perfect example of an often underrated feminine quality. Listening has the power to help you understand motives, desires, and fears. Listening holds space for new perspectives, new possibilities, for yourself and others. Learning to listen to yourself teaches you to listen more deeply and intentionally to others.
Listening also gives you access to the divine knowing that is your inner voice. Acting from and building trust in your inner voice is key to refining your intuition. Intuition is a super power. Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” Your intuition will enable you to conjure up solutions that exist beyond reason and logic and also alert you when you are straying from your values.
Stepping in to feminine leadership, make sure you are not doing the majority of talking in all of your meetings. Encourage collaboration by listening to hear what others are saying. Don’t prepare your rebuttal or assume that you already know what they are talking about. Focus on slowing down your breath, that will help you slow down your thoughts to make space for their words. Then listen beyond their words. Words are only one part of the social cues that allow you to truly understand where someone is coming from.
Make understanding your goal when listening and then respond from the understanding that you have gained. This allows you to move past your own limiting beliefs to determine the best course of action for the common good. Masculine leaders tend to act before listening and neglect the feelings that arise from rushing into motion without setting clear intentions and considering how others are affected.
When responding as a feminine leader, be intentional and thoughtful with your words but don’t forget to also consider your facial expressions, your posture, and tone. Remember that conscious communication is a skill that takes practice and it is normal to feel vulnerable when you are learning and trying new things.
Is vulnerability a weakness? Yes, if you determine it to be and model behaviors that affirm your belief. Equally, vulnerability is a powerful catalyst for growth if you decide it is so. The power lies within you. The way you think about it, feel about it, talk about it, and hold space for it in your life will determine your experience. And not only your experience, but others’ as well. If you believe and behave in such a way that upholds the message that there is strength in vulnerability, you give permission for others to get curious about their own beliefs, lean in to new possibilities and hold new space for themselves to harness the power of vulnerability. Not everyone will be up for the task, in fact, some will be frightened by your understanding because it threatens a reality they are not willing or ready to part with.
Carry on. You will find others along the way to connect with and your connections will be more meaningful than ever before. Build a community that is aligned with your values, that gives you strength when defending them gets tiresome, that shelters you when you don’t have the will to fight. Act with compassion for the mistakes you will make along the way and for others who are fumbling their way through long-established social norms and traditions, who are trying their best to make sense of it all, or who are focused on survival.
The courage and strength it takes to change your behaviors, your relationships, your beliefs and live with intention is profound. I am talking about deep spiritual work here. It is in these discreet inner actions where transformation takes place and these transformations have the most impact in helping individuals reach their potential and usher in great societal change. In your journey, become a safe space for yourself and others to adjust to this shift. We learn best with compassion and curiosity, not judgement and shame.
Build a personal practice. Make time to slow down. Reflect. Journaling is a great way to empty your mind, clarify your thoughts and incite meaningful personal dialogue. Mind your words, particularly the ones you speak silently to yourself. Become conscious of the ways in which you are encouraging or discouraging your personal growth. Reclaim the narrative. Create affirmations to replace tired old stories that no longer align with your vision for the future. Move. Whether dancing or stretching, hiking or playing a sport, find a flow, a rhythm to release any thoughts or feelings that get stuck in the body. Get to know yourself so you can know what practice is right for you and know when it is time to change it up.
Most importantly, embrace your feminine qualities. Don’t be afraid to lead with empathy and show vulnerability. Stop referring to feminine attributes as soft-skills. Better yet, own the softness, honor receptivity and fluidity as powerful containers for growth and collaboration. Speak openly and confidently about them until you actually believe it. Feminine wisdom is innately powerful. It is time for us to remember, to honor, and to reclaim what is ours.
Thank you for sharing your most precious resource with me, your time. Over the last 18 months, I have had the privilege of interviewing 25 successful women leaders for this podcast. It struck me that the vast majority of these women spoke about their ability to transform ideas, situations, and companies- to take a seemingly negative situation and turn it into something positive. That’s a mission I want to be a part of. I hope these stories help share that mission, the potential for all of us to rewrite the narrative. I’ll be asking about feminine leadership in my upcoming interviews. I hope you’ll tune in.
Your story matters.

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This podcast was created to unravel the stories behind the dynamic and inspiring women of Athena Alliance. If you’re a member and want to be featured, we’d love to hear from you. Your story matters.