The kinder, gentler boot camp for women leaders who want to change the world. by @gwenmoran via @FastCompany

The Hudson Valley Learning Center That's Training Women Who Want To Change The World

The Omega Women's Leadership Institute is a kinder, gentler boot camp for women leaders who want to change the world.

What if the word "leadership" didn’t conjure images of power and dominance, but instead was more representative of collaboration and caretaking? That’s just one of the ambitious undertakings of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center (OWLC) based in Rhinebeck, New York’s Omega Institute.

The Omega Institute is a wellness and personal growth learning center nestled in the bucolic Hudson Valley. Cofounded by Elizabeth Lesser and Stephan Rechtschaffen, in 1977, Omega has always had a focus on helping women explore and develop their own power. After developing the acclaimed Women & Power conference in 2002, the team at Omega began conducting research about how to foster more leadership among women and developed more seminars and workshops. In 2012, the OWLC was created to help women overcome obstacles to embracing their power, but also to shift the very definition of the word.

Transforming power

Carla M. Goldstein, OWLC cofounder, says the program has been designed to help women shift from an "adaptive" relationship with power to a "transformative" one. Because women had been excluded from power centers like business and finance for so long, those systems were largely built without their input and they need to adapt. Omega’s program is being designed to allow women to transform the power structure so that it equally accommodates men and women in a collaborative way that emphasizes group contributions, non-violent interaction, and personal empowerment.

"The modality of power that we grew up with is a dominance model—an up-down model, a win-or-lose model. What we’re seeing more and more is that the old command-and-control leadership model is giving away to connect-and-collaborate," Goldstein says.

As a result, the program currently focuses on areas where women have traditionally been marginalized or excluded. It includes classes in finance, persuasive and assertive communication, and leadership basics. In addition, there are sessions on leadership lessons from nature and healing relationships between men and women.

Inclusivity rules

That focus on men as part of the conversation is essential, Goldstein says. The traditional power structure that values dominance and devalues collaboration, compassion, and emotion is unfair to men, too.

"It robs them of a significant portion of the human experience. They’re not allowed to experience, express, or utilize their emotional intelligence," she says.

Instead, the program encourages leaders to think about the consequences of their decisions. Instead of emphasizing a "win at all costs" approach to being a leader, Omega workshops teach leaders to think about their actions and decisions in the context of what they mean to others. When you buy a certain product, what are you doing to the planet, labor force, or community? If you’re hurting others with your actions, how can you rethink your decisions? It’s not an easy shift, she admits. But it’s a necessary one as we move into a world with so much conflict.

In addition to the current program, which has eight workshops and a women’s conference, the OWLC has scholarships to improve access to its programs. It also offers residencies that allow women to explore leadership issues in more depth while taking advantage of Omega’s rich programs. The OWLC Young Women & Girls Leadership Collaborative has resources for young women and girls in an effort to get them to be comfortable in leadership roles earlier.

Walking the talk

OWLC women are also taking their message out into the world. OWLC representatives have been in attendance at the UN Commission on the Status of Women at the UN headquarters in New York City, the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, the International Women’s Day celebration, and many others.

OWLC advisory council member Edit Schlaffer visited Zanzibar and wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about the problems of radicalization and its implications for women and families. Goldstein says that’s an example of what the OWLC hopes to achieve: Conversations and transformation that are then carried out to other places and cause more ripples of change.

Right now, the team is measuring impact and reviewing anecdotes to determine how to best grow. Ultimately, Goldstein says she envisions a yearlong or 18-month program that includes on-site education at Omega, online components, and connection with others to discuss how women leaders can change the essence of leadership. To do so women—and men—need to develop their inner strength as well as their skills for action in the world.

"We have so much wisdom in our body and so much emotional intelligence in our hearts. The human spirit is this vast land of connectivity. We work on developing practices like meditation, yoga, and creative expression in addition to risk-taking and using your emotional courage. It’s all part of developing stronger leaders," she says.

[Image: Flickr user Valentina Storti]

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  • Jacqueline Ryan


    Your organization is doing wonderful things in our community. We appreciate everything you have accomplished. I am writing in the hopes of spreading the word on an important issue for women in our area.

    There has not been a woman elected to the trial level as Supreme Court Judge in the Third Judicial District in over 14 years!

    This November Lisa Fisher is trying to change that.

    She is running for Supreme Court Judge. Lisa is the most qualified candidate with over 20 years experience in all levels of the courts in N.Y. She has served as Assistant Public Defender in Ulster County, a Staff Attorney for Ulster County Department of Social Services, a Court Attorney for the Kingston City Court. She has maintained her own general practice for over 17 years and she was Assigned Counsel to Spanish speaking litigants, as she is fluent in spanish. All of this and she and her husband have adopted 3 beautiful children.

    Help make a much needed change in our area.