What's Possible: An Interview With Elizabeth Lesser

What's Possible: An Interview With Elizabeth Lesser
May 08, 2012

Marianne Schnall, founder of Feminist.com, interviews Omega cofounder Elizabeth Lesser. Explore more from the What's Possible interview series with some of today's top women leaders.

 

Marianne: What inspired the formation of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center?

Elizabeth: Since we began in 1977, Omega has offered big conferences and smaller workshops on a variety of subjects specifically for women. About 10 years ago, I began thinking about what happens when you put the words “women” and “power” together. From the beginning of recorded history, there’s been an unspoken law that it’s un-ladylike to put those words together. I wanted to turn that on its head and explore the whole issue. What is a powerful woman? As women assume more power, can we transform the way it is used? Can we help the world become more conscious about the uses and abuses of power? 

We started offering Women & Power conferences and they took off in a way that surprised me—instead of just 50 or 100 people coming, hundreds of women came from around the world. By the third or fourth year, it had become one of the biggest and most influential women’s conferences in the country. We would hear how it changed the course of women’s lives. And we heard a lot about participants wanting follow up. They wanted to know how to take the inspiration from the conference and make changes in their workplace, family life, and the world. In response, we began to contemplate creating a more structured center at Omega where we could have longer trainings for women interested in becoming a different kind of leader.

Marianne: How would you describe the mission and vision behind the Omega Women’s Leadership Center?

Elizabeth:  The overarching vision is that we believe women have the potential to change the way power is used in the world for everybody. We’re not interested in women taking over the old power paradigm. We think everyone will benefit when women not only join men at the table, but also help men turn the tables over and create something new. When the rules of power were made—way back in the early stages of human society-building—women weren’t part of the conversation. They weren’t consulted on questions like, “How do we share resources? How do we deal with conflict? What should we prioritize?  What’s important for a society?” As women take on more and more powerful leadership positions—in the home, at work, in religion, and government—when enough of us get there, we might actually change what it means to be powerful and to lead. It might look more inclusive. It might look like a more care-based society. This has never been tested, because there have never been enough women in power and enough women empowered with their own voice to even test it. Our loftiest goal is to ask these questions of women leaders: “Can you show, in your leadership, a different way of dealing with conflict—a more constructive ways of sharing power? Do you have better reasons for wanting to lead then just to satisfy your own ego? Are you interested in leadership as a way of transforming our society?“

Marianne: Why do you think transforming power and women’s leadership is so important and timely right now?

Elizabeth: All times in history have had their serious challenges, but it seems to us, that we are living in a pretty critical time, one that calls for a different way of being together, a different way of leading, and a different way of sharing power. If ever there was a time that a new voice was needed, it’s now, because the stakes are really high when it comes to the environment, the way we solve conflicts, the way we share resources, and the way we feed everyone. The qualities that live within the hearts of women—honoring diversity and recognizing the value of emotional intelligence—if ever those qualities were needed, it’s now.

Marianne: You also talk about the need to redefine power. Power is usually thought of as very hierarchal. What does this new power look like to you?

Elizabeth: I don’t think all hierarchy is necessarily evil or bad. Whenever human beings are together, there needs to be some kind of structure, some kind of hierarchy where decisions can be made in such a way that everyone doesn’t go crazy making them. It’s the corruption of power that bothers me. Power is just using energy in a wise way to get things done. Power has been misinterpreted to mean getting my way on the backs of other people. Getting whatever I want, forgetting that there are other beings and species and energies involved.  The OWLC will examine what it would look like if power was put in the service of everybody, as opposed to just a few people. We understand that to lead and to get things done takes a lot of organization, structure, decision making, and strength, but that does not have to equate to violence, domination, and the unconscious use of resources.

Marianne: As the cofounder of Omega, a teacher, and a best-selling author, what have you personally learned about being a leader through your experience?

Elizabeth: I was in my early twenties when we started Omega. I had very little respect for my own instincts and voice. I was in a male dominated leadership structure—which most women were then, and still are now. I was quite naive—I went into leadership thinking, ‘I’m going to learn from these guys—they have a lot of things to teach me, especially about business and finances and keeping a large organization running.’  I thought I had some interesting and important things to teach the men in my organization, about utilizing the people within the organization, taking care of the people, empowering the people, training them, bringing them up as we went along, so that we would be stronger together. It surprised and upset me in my early days that it was expected that I would learn the ropes of one power paradigm, but there wasn’t much interest on the other side, in learning about what I had to say. I didn’t know how to navigate that imbalance. I didn’t trust my own voice; I thought that because what I had to say wasn’t being respected meant that there was something wrong with me. Over the years I began to understand through a long, hard process that my instincts and vision were valid. The work I have done to gain confidence in my own voice has been so important. I learned how to speak in a way that will be heard and to know when not to back down, when to hold my ground.

Marianne: Obviously, there are many obstacles in society for women in terms of gaining leadership, but oftentimes it’s the woman herself who stands in her way. It starts in girlhood when we’re taught to devalue our true voice or focus on how we look and not know our true worth, or to even know we have power.

Elizabeth: There’s the Greek myth of Cassandra who was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo. When she refused to become his consort, he placed a curse on her—she would retain the power of foresight, but no one would believe her predictions. Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy but she was unable to prevent the war. No one believed what she saw or what she said. And, in a way, all women have been living out the myth of Cassandra from the beginning of time. We know important things for humanity, but we have not been listened to, and as a result, we’ve gathered some unfortunate behaviors where the way we express what we know isn’t respected. What I’ve learned over my years in leadership, is first, to trust that what I feel, know, and see is of value, and two, to learn a way to speak it in such a way that it’s listened to and acted on. One of the problems with traditional leadership training programs is that they don’t take into account this deep obstacle that many women have, this pervading, yet unconscious feeling within, bolstered by society, that what you have to say really isn’t of value. If family and society tell you its unfeminine, not really womanly, to be aggressive, to speak up, to have strong opinions, to take up space, then women won’t trust their own voice, because to be heard and to be influential, you’ve got to have a way to sing out with passion and love and self-trust—to sing out your song for everyone to hear. Women leaders are at a disadvantage, because we are actually taught not to sing out with strength and conviction.

Marianne: On the flip side are women in leadership positions that decide to speak out that wind up getting harsh backlash—that’s another element of the problem.

Elizabeth: Then why would you want to do it? It’s hard enough. It’s hard for men to lead. It’s hard to lead. It’s scary to lead. It’s hard for everyone. Men struggle with it, too. But they have the winds of culture behind them because that is the way it is supposed to be. Everyone in leadership has to deal with the same difficulties--you risk not being liked, you risk making mistakes.

Marianne: What unique qualities do you think women bring to leadership that are most essential for the world today?

Elizabeth: I do want to first speak to this problem of generalizations because not all women are the same and not all men are the same. Many men today will say with great eagerness—this is so exciting what you’re doing with Omega’s Women Leadership Center. It’s so necessary. They feel trapped, as well, in an old paradigm of leadership. They see that it’s not working. Women have other ideas? Great! What are they? They feel hungry to develop parts of themselves that have been sleeping, or have not been allowed to come out. Men and women have within themselves both masculine and feminine qualities. This Jungian way of looking at people is the way I view human beings. There’s a feminine energy and a masculine energy at play in the world. And men, of course, often have more of the masculine; women often have more of the feminine, but that doesn’t mean that to be a woman is to be all soft, sweet, caring, doily, and pretty, and to be a man is to be firm, strong, decisive, and warrior. It’s not as easily broken down the middle like that. Yes, women are more traditionally carriers of the feminine—that part of the human that cares about other people, that nurtures other people, that takes the long view, that values everyone working together. That’s feminine energy. If that energy is respected and paired with the masculine energy, which is more about the explorer, the discoverer, and the warrior, then things are in balance and a new kind of leader can be born. I’m not talking about replacing patriarchy with matriarchy. I’m talking about getting out of the whole “archy” paradigm altogether and becoming human together, becoming full human beings. For thousands of year 51% of the population has been left out of the big decisions. I don’t know exactly what it will look like when there’s full inclusivity of women, but I have to assume that any group who has been left out for that long, has something really important to add to the whole picture to balance things out. People often say, well look at Sarah Palin or Margaret Thatcher—they didn’t add anything different. But that’s a very small-minded way of looking at this. Those are just a few leaders. A critical mass of women of all different points of view is going to make a difference.

Marianne: What do you personally do to kind of keep yourself centered and in touch with your authentic self?

Elizabeth: One practice I rely on all the time is basic meditation which allows me to strip away the noise. Its like the old-fashioned dial on the radio, where you were getting static and then you found that clear, sweet spot on the dial, where the music would come through. That’s what meditation is for me. Dialing out the static, the noise, the anxiety, the fear, and coming into a place that’s deep and quiet. It’s like dropping into a well of inspiration and wisdom. I also continually read from wisdom traditions from around the world and across the ages—poetry, holy books, and novels. Anything that connects me to the best in the human spirit. I gain a lot of strength from nature and from other people who are courageous enough to be seekers, not just living in a rut that society has carved out as the way to be.

Marianne: Many women these days are overwhelmed with responsibilities and feeling so overextended that we can’t find time to nurture ourselves, much less change the world.

Elizabeth: I think that all of humanity is finding itself in this position. Things have sped up and we’re able to do so much more in a day. It’s a very different way to be a human right now then it was 50 years ago. The first thing I would say would be to take a nice, big breath and realize it’s not that there’s something wrong with you, you’re not doing anything wrong, everyone is going through this right now. Don’t layer on top of it some sense that ‘If I was doing it differently, I would be okay.’ This seems to be the nature of life right now.

That being said, it is amazing how even 10 minutes without your cell phone or computer or TV or iPod—just you and silence—can wake you up and fill your empty well. Just shutting the door and telling everybody, don’t bother me for 10 little minutes. Your sacred time to either sit nice and tall, breathe or stretch, or do some physical exercise that awakens the energy inside of you. Even 10 minutes a day is really helpful and I absolutely do not believe that anyone doesn’t have 10 minutes a day. If you clocked your day and saw how much time you were just sort of surfing the web, or watching television, or talking on the phone, or having fruitless conversations—you would find you do have time, but it takes some degree of discipline. This is why most spiritual paths are called a discipline or a practice. A practice is something that you have to make yourself do, but the result is becoming better at the art of living. 

I think we are out of balance now as a species--and women know this more than men do—because there’s something in our makeup and in our bodies that really wants to luxuriate more in just the joy of being alive and not always consuming, creating, building. There’s something inside of us that wants desperately to stop and experience and just be—not just always do. We want to explore this at the OWLC: Can women lead us out of this compulsive behavior driving us crazy as a species? Taking time out of the frenzy might feel selfish or even indulgent, but I believe it may actually save the world.

Marianne: One of the things I heard you say recently that I thought was intriguing, was how you felt there was a hunger for a new kind of feminism.  Can you talk a little bit about that?

Elizabeth: I’m talking about American feminism, because in some parts of the world the feminism of my mother’s time, and even her mother’s time, is what is needed today. When American women rose up in the early 20th century and demanded basic human rights, it required a fierce strength to break through formidable cultural, religious, and legal blocks.  And again in the Sixties and the Seventies, it was a movement in opposition to the status quo. Women around the world are still fighting for basic rights and we want the OWLC to support all women, wherever they are on the spectrum of liberation. Here in America, we’re able to embrace a new kind of feminism. One aspect of the new feminism is more inclusivity of men. Because I think men are suffering as much as women, locked in the old way of doing leadership and power. Men are starving for a way of being in the world that honors their full humanity.  I see it in my son who is the stay-at-home parent in his family—he has a son and his wife brings home the main salary, she works full time and is the acknowledged breadwinner. And there are a lot of men taking on this role now with no shame, and with a sense of great joy and pride that they can develop that part of themselves. One of my favorite Gloria Steinem quotes is “We've taken one giant step forward by convincing the majority of the country that women can do what men can do. But the next step is convincing the country that men can do what women can do. So far, we don't believe it ourselves.” Men want to fully participate in what it means to be human, being at home, raising the children, being the caretakers. Until that is evened out, we can’t say we have a full feminism. 

Emotional intelligence is a big part of what feminism is going to include and give as a gift to the world. As in Eve Ensler’s new play, “I am an Emotional Creature”—the pride, for women to say, yeah, we’re emotional creatures and emotions will save the world. Love will save the world. Passion will save the world. Communication between human beings. Knowing what I feel. Knowing what you feel. This is what we need right now and women have centuries of having honed being more emotionally intelligent—now everyone needs to be emotionally intelligent.

Marianne: One of the things that Omega does so well is creating and cultivating community.  It’s important to know you’re not out there by yourself.

Elizabeth: In most sociological surveys of people in America when the question is asked, “What is lacking most in your life?” What comes up is the sense of community, the sense of belonging to something. Most people live in cities and neighborhoods, they don’t know their neighbors, they don’t feel connected to a group of people. One thing that Omega and the OWLC has put a lot of effort into is creating a place--whether it’s on our campus or online—where you can feel part of a group of people who want to do the same thing you want to do. When you do things all alone, you can lose your energy by thinking, ‘it’s just me. Why do I care so much? Why do I make such a big stink?’ You lose your voice, you lose your passion and then you just make your way through the day. But when you’re around other people who think the way you do, and share a passion for making the world a better place, it feeds you.

Marianne: The theme of this September’s Women & Power Conference is “What’s Possible”. In your opinion, what is possible?

Elizabeth: I have great faith in human beings, even given the terrible things that we perpetuate on each other and the world. I believe that human beings are remarkable creations and have this miraculous capacity to love and create, to make art, to make love, to be joyful, to celebrate. And, I continue to think it’s possible to build societies based on joy and celebration, creativity, and higher consciousness. I am always aiming towards that, towards heaven on earth, which I believe is the promise that we feel in our hearts could be possible. If we didn’t think it was possible, we wouldn’t continue to dream of it, look for it, create it in our families and in our workplaces. That flame to aim for the best in the human spirit is in every human being. It’s contagious to be positive and optimistic and to make your life be a model of something beautiful. I want to teach people to have that faith and positivity so they can be contagious forces in the world also.

 

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