The word myth has many meanings. It can mean a lie; it can also mean an oral legacy passed down from pre-recorded history. Myths are sometimes seen as history distorted by being passed down, and sometimes as metaphors and allegories for inner processes – stories that are symbolically but not factually “true”. All are relevant here.
My experience suggests that one of the most important things a woman can do is commit to uncovering the truth for herself, and make an important distinction between the facts of what she has lived and the truth of her own experience. There are lies we must debunk about what it means to be a woman, and what it means to lead. The version of the stories we ultimately accept for ourselves may determine not just our personal experience but also the larger story unfolding globally in the 21st Century.
There is a quote you will have heard: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Recently I learned this is a misquote and an example of a story unhinged from its original meaning which gets lost in translation and retelling. Many mythic themes relating to the feminine have similarly become separated from their original meaning, the Labyrinth and the Minotaur is one. In the bones of myths there is however, always a shining truth. This misquote is no exception.
Kurt Koffka (1886 to 1941) was a Gestalt psychologist. He made the original observation from which came our current day lie about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Apparently what Kurt Koffka originally said was: “The whole is other than the sum of its parts”. He did not like the English translation and firmly corrected his students if they substituted “greater” for “other”. He apparently would say: “This is not a principle of addition”.
As a woman, the version I internalise of what Kurt Koffka said supports either a principle of addition that’s required because I am “less than” and must add to and fix to become “greater” or, the possibility that by accepting, and including all of my parts there opens an “other” experience of myself personally, and as a leader.
I am not interested in becoming a greater version of the leadership we currently see in the world. I want to be entirely “other”. I am not interested in striving and efforting to be “equal”. I am interested and committed to “other”.
“Other” is hard to pin down. It includes a profound experience we’re privileged to know in ways that are deeply personal, but relates also to universal and mythic shared themes of being present to the deepest truth in any given moment. The deepest truth of who we are is other than the sum of the facts of what has happened to us. There is a matrix of wholeness that undergirds what has been disabled in our culture with respect to the feminine. We are in the process of enablement through radical inclusion, not fixing.
One of the most toxic and pervasive lies is that as women, we need “fixing”. What might happen if we held a moratorium on “fixing”? What would happen if we replaced “fixing” with radical “inclusion” of ourselves exactly as we are? What if the cutting edge for women leadership in the 21st Century is radical inclusion of our selves just the way we are?
What happens if I say: There is nothing wrong with you. You have everything you need; simply include it. Include all of yourself; the disabled parts, the broken parts, the unfinished parts, the disowned parts. Given that there are currently no models of entirely effective, inclusive, integrated feminine leadership, how do you know which bits of you to leave behind? Please don’t slice off, lock up, make up, fold up or tuck away any parts of yourself. You are perfectly formed for your next step. Take it, just the way you are. We are going into the unknown. Don’t prejudge parts of yourself simply because they haven’t been useful (yet). Our judgements about our own (and others’) underused, undeveloped and possibly misused capacities costs us dearly.
The Olympic Games are rooted in myth and archetypes. I was drawn to the Paralympic Games recently because of my reflections about “disabled” parts of myself. I realised I am at an age and stage of work on my human self where I can do no more. It’s not that I will not continue to learn and grow, I will. But I am disabled in some ways, and that’s just the way it is. With that came permission to engage with the full current of my own life-force moving through me now, just the way I am.
As the fullness of my life-force is given permission to flow through me, exactly the way I am, I experience the sum of my parts being “other”. I am both disabled and perfectly formed for my work on this planet. Both are true at the same time. I have nothing to hide and nothing to apologise for. This is a big deal for women in visible leadership roles.
Talent is energy waiting to flow in our lives. But the switch is “off” if we accept an unhelpful edge that personal and leadership development can have if we interpret it as a need to fix troublesome aspects of ourselves as women in order to become “greater”. It is my increasing experience in my work that it is time to come fully into our own in a “whole” new way, accepting the broken, damaged parts and our “disabilities”. The “on” switch is risk. The risk to let our life-force move through us now, exactly the way we are.
I’m part of a team that delivers a personal and professional leadership development programme for women called “Coming Into Your Own”. We incorporate archetypes and, increasingly, I am including myth. Inclusivity and diversity are familiar themes these days. The problem with familiarity is that we can stop seeing what matters and how it relates to us personally.
Myths allow us to examine personal experiences one step removed, leaving our own vulnerabilities protected. Usually, but not always, we’re drawn to a myth because of identification with the central character. But if we keep working the same myth, over time, we start to see ourselves in all the archetypes in the single myth. Myths help us take a look at all the inner characters that make up the single outer self we present to the world. This is a different take on radical inner inclusivity and diversity. Can I own all the parts of the stories I tell?
Sharing our real life stories with women who have stories like our own may feel comforting and supportive. We often choose to connect with women who have real life stories like our own and exclude those who don’t. If we do that, the deeper experience of shared meaning can remain elusive. This is because our individual stories as women, the biographical details, are specific about “how” something happened to us. But collectively there is a “what” that has happened to us, all of us, in all of our lives. “How” things happen can separate us, “what” has happened is the common thread that unites us. If we can get beyond judgements of the biographical details, we begin to powerfully connect in new ways to new ground we share. There is deep truth to uncover beyond the facts of our stories of how things happened. Herein is the courage to lead inclusively as women leaders in the 21st Century. The whole of us is other than the sum of our parts.