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.
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.
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.
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.