An Image from the Womensphere Emerging Leaders Global Summit

Sunday, January 22, 2012

(Photo credit: Bernie DeChant via

There were so many amazing discussions and questions that were brought up at the Womensphere conference last week (some of which I encapsulated in quote form last Saturday), but I want to share today one of the earliest and most impacting images I took away from the conference: 200+ women in business clothes standing up and singing together at the prompting of Toshi Reagon.

After the opening remarks by the conference organizer, Analisa Balares, Toshi was the first guest she brought out. As you can imagine at 9am in the morning, most of us were still groggily saying our hellos to our tablemates and talking about traffic. Little did we know about our upcoming musical debut.

The room stood slowly. There were some early adopters who had bounced up out of their seats, clapping and smiling, while there were those who remained seated for the entire time. We all still sung in somewhat timid voices, not ready to speak above the rest, not at this early juncture where we had all just come together.

I won't blame this timidity entirely on internalized sexism or the incongruity it held with the idea of "professionalism" purported by these high academic conferences. No, I believe that the restraint employed by many of the women (myself included) was simply due to the fear of stepping into a different form of leadership.

We all arrived at the Womensphere conference as leaders or aspiring leaders. We are established in our fields or we are scoping out opportunities to gain greater prestige. We hold strong opinions and can be considered experts on a vast variety of topics. But when confronted with the simple task of singing in a public forum, letting go of the preconceived notions of the serious businesswoman or driven academic, we collectively blanched.

It was a lesson in flexibility. What is leadership without the ability to adapt to new situations? We were forced to embrace the discomfort, as one of the speakers stated, and learn from it.

Toshi left the stage to wild applause and bemused smiles exchanged across every table in the room. She had illustrated for us an oft-ignored concept in leadership: jump into the unexpected, live in the moment, and absorb all that you can from the experience.

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