An Unrepentant Idealist on Transformative Leadership

JUNE 2022
Flagrant inequality surrounds us, yet even our quotidian experiences of inequality do not necessarily change how we live, act, or decide among life’s many choices. Perhaps we take perverse comfort knowing someone else has it worse than we do. “That’s just the way it is” is the usual excuse we give ourselves, even knowing the prevailing paradigm is rotten with inequality, disrespect, and exploitation. We shrug it off when we can, choosing to eschew the discomfort of going against the flow. Still, shrugging it off becomes much more difficult when we work in fields where the ravages of poverty, oppression, discrimination, ignorance, and violence unmistakably confront us. Whoever said life was fair?

As Chloe, a transgender woman who transitioned gender later in life, I have belatedly learned that a dismissive shrug has profound – indeed often dire – consequences. In my male embodiment it was so easy to go with the flow of male privilege; it relieved me of any need to decide or to push back against inequality. “May the best man win” was celebrated as the virtuous rule, and I did not question it. It’s an embarrassing admission to make now, but it is also a deeply personal awakening that warrants sharing. Procrastination in taking a personal stand against unwarranted privilege – especially for someone in a leadership position – simply means that the suffering of others will continue unabated. It may also mean that you too will feel the pain.

“In my male embodiment it was so easy to go with the flow of male privilege;”

In the context of personal awakenings and the systematized suffering of more than half of humanity, I now invite you to stop and consider that prevailing, nearly omnipresent norm we call patriarchy. Hmmm – that’s a protected concept, very unfashionable to talk about except in the complacency of a cynical nod to its continuing dominance, or in the expression of a wistful “if only things were different”. Very few of us reach even the most obvious of conclusions, i.e., that the antidote to patriarchy isn’t matriarchy – it’s feminism. We’re not supposed to talk about feminism either, if we want to “get along” and avoid being cast as radicalized or as men-haters. For most men and far too many women, there is little motivation even to bother to learn what feminism means – but it can be adequately dumbed down into two small but potentially earth-shaking words: universal equality.
Universal equality? Fairness for all? Who talks about that? Idealists, some religious folk perhaps, feminists, poets, philosophers, and ethicists. They can be a passionate, sincere, and selfless crowd, but they are often simply quietly introspective and content to muse about paradigms that they know won’t be shifted. Often referred to as quirky, very few among this crowd rise to positions of leadership, except perhaps in a convent. The exhortations of those few who are advocating – sincerely and not just rhetorically – for the pursuit of universal equality and equity are muted at best, and they are often entirely drowned out by the noise and cacophony of the media, influencers, “thought leaders”, celebrities, politicians, and all their various followers, who all employ a very different script.
Far from a social evolution toward universal equality and fairness, patriarchy takes us on a different journey. The exponential increase in inequality is fueled by the patriarchy’s winner-take-all maxim, it’s inflexible default to competition and domination, and its shared diminishment of values such as collaboration, compassion, care, self-sacrifice, and empathy. Such “values of diminishment” are most often associated with femininity, softness, and a naive lack of worldliness. Unfortunately, values of diminishment is a growing category; who talks about public service anymore? As America and many other countries become deeply polarized, even civility risks becoming an anachronism.

“Universal equality? Fairness for all? Who talks about that?”

Curiously, leadership as exercised by cisgender and transgender women, or by non-binary folk, also nearly always takes place still under the shadow of patriarchal rules, traditions, and legacies. Patriarchy sets expectations, defines priorities, emphasizes power and wealth, gives voice to some and not to others, and dismisses or pays amused condescension to the possibility that patriarchy might be optional. Few expect the many beneficiaries of patriarchy (who are not only men) to ever feel any obligation to justify its continuance. Patriarchy simply is – get over it.    
My leadership journey won’t allow me to get over it. My personal vision for society is built on a shared commitment to universal human dignity. As an ethicist, I have the hard-earned tools of disciplined rationality and, on a good day, the eloquence of moral suasion to reach those who care to engage in contemplating a different world…a radically different world. As the founder and president of a non-profit organization of applied ethicists, The Center for Values in International Development, I’m reminded by frequent encounters with so many blank looks that the odds are not in our favor. Perhaps foolhardy, we are the first and only such organization based in North America trying to influence the fields of international relief and development to move past the inadequate maxims of “do no harm” and “nothing about us without us”. Instead, we champion the embrace of both recognition and respect of equal human dignity everywhere, in everyone. Even though relief and development practitioners spend their careers working hard to help overcome poverty, suffering, sickness, and oppression, and instead labor to build freedoms, opportunities, wellbeing and empowerment, there is almost no evidence of any discourse on morality and ethics in this field. Such practitioners are strongly discouraged from approaching their work openly based on care, compassion, solidarity, and moral duty, and are urged instead to opt for the thin gruel of efficiency and effectiveness. So much meaning is lost in that narrowness.

I’m unlikely to waver; at my age I have become used to tilting at windmills. You might be generous and call that leadership, but not if that is to be measured by a burgeoning followership. Holding my conviction that human dignity, care, compassion, and solidarity are society’s building blocks is not a choice for me – it is just who I am. And, as a transgender woman, I have spent many very difficult years finding out who I am, and what I must do about that discovery. That discernment process saved my life once, and I am not inclined to question it now. Equality, universal dignity, care, and compassion – these will continue to characterize what I give my remaining years of leadership to. Call me a feminist if you want.

It’s an odd form of leadership, perhaps, but I’ll take it.

Dr. Chloe Schwenke is the founder and president of the Center for Values in International Development, a nonprofit organization uniquely addressing applied ethics and moral values in the field of international development and a client of The Athena Advisors. She did her doctoral studies in public policy and ethics at the University of Maryland.

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