Velvet Leadership

This week I spent three days with a group of very impressive local community leaders. Despite their tremendous accomplishments, most of them would never think to label themselves a leader.

One of them said she never thought of herself as a leader. “After all”, she said, “I’m a nurturer, I take care of people. I see my job as getting everyone to work together”. 

Another, when asked if she saw herself as a leader was uncomfortable even answering the question.

And yet, these and other remarkable individuals like them, have raised thousands of dollars and worked shoulder to shoulder with others to find resourceful strategies for bringing needed services and programs to their communities.

Like many others, it seems they’ve bought into the more commonly accepted view of a leader as a charismatic figure of power and authority, typically a male, who tells us what to do and how to do it.

I’d like to think that’s changing. These days it seems a more successful leader is likely to be one you might never notice. They’re more likely to apply an approach more akin to velvet leadership -  soft yet rich in colour and texture. It seems this velvet leadership is most typically taken on by women. Sadly, despite its richness, it is too often overlooked and undervalued.

There are many among us who are quite happy to serve below the radar rather than be the public face of a movement or issue. Instead we prefer to work with others to achieve our consensus- driven outcomes and goals. And, while we may not have the charismatic presence or oratorical skills of the more traditional leader, we often have a good understanding of what needs to be done and how to work with others to make it happen.

We are the nurturers, the strategists, the researchers, the energizers, and the worker bees. No surprise there as these are often traditional roles for women and those for which we’ve often been socialized to embrace.

Partly due to our gender, partly to how we were raised, we have developed the capacity to work with a lot of people at one time to build consensus, collaboration, commitment and action. As such we tend to undermine or even forget that this work requires a lot of knowledge and skills. Women guide, advise, encourage, balance, support, push, plan and lead by example. If that isn’t leadership, then what is?

Maybe velvet leadership isn’t so much about being invisible as it is being visible in a way that invites freedom, expression, engagement, and connection. It is a style of leadership that encourages people to take responsibility for their work and their accomplishments.

While the traditional showcase leader may find gratification in the spotlight and applause, the velvet leader is more likely to find joy in contributing to an environment that empowers people and their respective communities to learn and grow.

Perhaps the most important aspect of velvet leadership is that it ultimately is one that allows everyone involved to say, “we did it ourselves”.

Posted on 06-07-09


I love that term - velvet leadership, did you come up with it?

•Posted by Heather O'Hearn  on  06/29/09  at  05:02 PM

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