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Women in Higher Education

January 1, 2006

Xena and I: female empowerment; IN HER OWN WORDS

BYLINE: Summers, Deborah

After winning a highly charged election for department chair at a small state college, I stared at my position statement that seemed to trumpet my beliefs mockingly. Phrases like "participatory leadership," "shared ownership" and "collaborative effort" felt like they were leaping off the page, challenging and taunting me.

Was it hubris to think that I could unite a large academic department comprised of disparate factions, all for the greater good? Could such a feat be accomplished by sharing the coveted leadership position that some would perceive as my newly won "spoils of war"?

Despite these questions, I knew that my leadership approach aligned with a recent study on the motivations and priorities of women in leadership. Not surprisingly, this study revealed that women leaders overwhelming focus on people and organizational health above personal gain, unlike their male counterparts.

Nonetheless, in my male dominated world, I remained uncertain. To my knowledge, a women had never claimed the title of chair in my department. In fact, the former chair had been in place for 12 years. Could I be effective as a female leader whose style included fostering relationships and valuing diverse opinions and perspectives? In a field that is underrepresented by women in positions of higher educational leadership, were the challenges I was about to face made even more difficult by virtue of my sex?

And then I thought: If Xena could do it, so could I.

For those living in an academic cave for the last 10 years, Xena Warrior Princess was a little television show with a big impact on women around the globe. We learn at the outset of every show that "In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. Her courage will change the world."

For six seasons, what made this first century, self-made hero so attractive and influential to 21st century women was an unrelenting source of strength, courage, and compassion that allowed her to succeed on her own terms in a male-dominated world. Did Xena have universal lessons that women in positions of leadership in higher education could benefit from?

"Ay-Yi-Yi-Yi," came her resounding trademark cry of yes. I asked myself, what would Xena Warrior Princess do? And from her ancient battlefield, I uncovered four valuable strategies of successful female leadership.

1. Resist stealth.

Most of us have heard through organizational folklore that decisions are seldom made at the table but are brokered through deals cut long beforehand. The business of trading secrets and keeping favors has never settled well with me. I struggled as a new administrator with the idea that I would have to automatically subvert my intentions and engage in hallway conversations where the "real work" took place, like many administrators I have known.

And then I thought of Xena. Every time Xena enters a fray she proudly announces her arrival. Enemies and friends alike know of her intentions when they hear her mighty battle cry. Xena even lets her enemies know when she is about to strike.

"Ay-Yi-Yi-Yi," she cries before raising her signature weapon, the Chakram. This simple circle of ruthless steel is always spotted in advance by her foes because it is designed to ricochet off several surfaces before arriving to strike its target. Remembering this, I thought, if Xena can be forthright and transparent, so can I.

2. Be humane.

My relatively new experiences with leadership have led me to believe that great strength often comes from a gentle approach. When I become frustrated with a colleague or listen to a student complaint about faculty, my style is to meet face-to-face with that department member and ask about the problem. My goal is to communicate my concern and attempt to address the behavior upfront.

Unfortunately, if the problem persists, my response must escalate accordingly. In human resource circles this approach is called progressive discipline, a process that humanely builds opportunities for appropriate kinds of actions to occur.

But is that what Xena would do, I ask myself? Should my personal arsenal include stomping, pillaging or even sending a pointed email copied up the chain of command for the good of the order? After all, I reasoned, even Xena has a special weapon that could kill a person in thirty seconds with her bare hands--the death grip. This tactical move involves cutting off a person's blood flow to the brain with a quick and painless move on the jugular vein. The individual then has 30 seconds to agree to whatever is requested, and in doing so becomes released from death by a quick reversal performed by our hero. The only telltale mark is a slight trickle of blood from the nose.

And then I remembered that while appearing horrendously violent, Xena's best weapon is seldom used. In fact, she only resorts to employing it as a last resort when her enemy has exhausted all other options. With relief, I decided that, like Xena, I will continue to go to great lengths to avoid using so deadly a weapon. I will continue with my gentle approach unless I am forced to do otherwise.

As Xena says, "Wisdom before weapons. The moment you pick up a weapon you become a target, and the moment you kill .... everything changes, everything."

3. Bring out the best in people.

One joke that seems to always ring true in higher education is about the difficulty of herding cats. It implies that in higher education, individual freedoms, strengths and ways of doing prevail over the greater good to the degree that no collective goals can ever be reached.

In some ways, this joke has struck a chord of truth for me. While I have always been awed by the individual contributions of my talented faculty, I have also been humbled at times by their inability to unite for even a less-than-noble cause. And still I prevail with an undying optimism that individual strengths brought to bear upon an interdependent task will bring out the best in people. Some laugh at my naivete, yet a look into Xena's interpersonal relationships heartens me about my approach as a female leader.

Many a fan of the show has pondered the merit of Xena's allegiances and alliances at times. After all, her army includes pacifists who take up swords--bumbling, friendly idiots who become heroes--murderers and thieves who perform good deeds--and Greek gods and evil warlords who provide valuable insights. This cast of characters provides Xena with unexpected talents because she believes that the best in people is brought out through a belief in the importance of their unique contributions.

Xena values love, trust and friendship. These values are explicitly communicated through all of her interactions, and she is rewarded mightily with loyalty and a diversity of opinion that affords her much wisdom, all in the name of the greater good. Following her example, I will continue to support and encourage the individual strengths, differences and interests of my faculty as we fight together for our own greater good. As Xena says, "Wasted potential is the greatest sin of all."

4. Transformation is an ongoing process.

For Xena, there is a dark and painful past. The irony associated with being known as a courageous warrior is that it comes at a price. In her youth, when a warlord pillaged her village and killed her loved ones, Xena vowed to seek revenge. She became a ruthless killer and assassin. But, through a twist of fate, this experience that could potentially destroy her instead transformed her. Out of this tragedy is born her desire to seek her own redemption.

How does this apply to contemporary leadership issues for women in higher education? For me, the point begins with willingness to constantly self-examine. What made this show so successful was the depth to which Xena had to face her past honestly. She vowed to give up her life as a warrior and fight for the greater good, yet as a leader she was continually humbled by her own mistakes. In this initial rebirth of her identity as a positive leader, we learned that leadership need not be confined to a definition of how others define us, or even how we define ourselves.

In subsequent episodes, Xena took transformation a step further. She willingly sacrificed her life for the greater good and for those she loved. Her sacrifices led to several deaths and rebirths, and through the self-examination associated with rebirth she continually transformed by drawing upon her failings as sources of insight and compassion. It was this battle of self that was the real war within our hero, a battle that led to continual reflection and transformation.

In addition, this warrior princess was well aware that her enemy could very well be herself--if she were to slip into the all-too-satisfied state of self-acceptance. Reflection, self-awareness and humility characterized her process of transformation. Ultimately, Xena and her self-sacrifice reminds me of the most important lesson of all-- that a true leader is willing to confront the deepest most difficult parts of herself. In the true spirit of Xena, we learn that a hero admits her weaknesses and draws upon them as a source of ongoing strength.

Thank you, Xena. You have taught me many valuable lessons in my first year of leadership in higher education. Most importantly, I have learned that "it takes great strength to show compassion." Through your eyes I have re-envisioned and re-claimed the meaning of war. If, as female leaders, we are continually committed to examining our definition of self, then the battleground becomes the greater good and our weapons consist of openness, humanity, trust and self-examination.

As a new administrator, I have struggled with the allure of the battle metaphor. I have already seen my female counterparts from other academic disciplines become mired in the metaphor of battle. Their war-weary expressions and caustic references to arsenals, casualties and spoils alert me to draw upon this reservoir of antagonistic imagery with caution.

My intent is not to be adversarial in my leadership approach. In fact, as I revisit that position statement I am heartened by the simplistic sentiment of collegiality.

Xena has shown me that, "Any fool can risk her life. It takes a hero to risk her heart."

RELATED ARTICLE: What Makes You Feel Empowered?

A recent informal poll of WIHE readers uncovered some unconventional strategies and tactics that women use to increase their sense of self-esteem, power and control. Among them:

* "An extra cup of coffee puts me right out there."

* "I ask myself 'What's the worst that could happen, and could I live with that?' If the answer is yes, I go for it."

* "I'd hate to explain to my teenager that I'm afraid to try something. So I act brave, and it works!"

* "My brother is the world's biggest wuss, so I'm constantly working to model for him that it's more fun to be a hammer than a nail."

* "I speak up for those who can't or won't, and I hope that someday someone will do the same for me."

* "When I read historic accounts of powerful women or even watch Geena Davis as America's first female president in Commander in Chief,I realize that I'm part of a long line of women before and after me.And I want my presence on earth to have made a difference."

By Dr. Deborah Summers, chair of the Department of Education, California State University at Chico

Deborah Summers is currently practicing her Xena skills at California State University at Chico. Reach her at

Copyright 2006 Women in Higher Education


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