Highlights: International Leadership Association (ILA) 4th Women and Leadership Conference

The International Leadership Association (ILA) 4th Women and Leadership Conference held at 1440 Multiversity, Scotts Valley, CA, USA on 16-19th June, is probably the most unusual conference I have had the pleasure of attending. The theme of the conference was “Building Solution, Harmony and the Greater Good”. Written below are some major highlights from the conference.

The Sessions

The conference was extremely well curated, with papers/presentations (from scholars sharing their research findings on the study of women and leadership); roundtable discussions (where individuals shared their research projects with scholars who can support, challenge and collaborate); symposiums and workshops. It was impossible to attend all over 30 concurrent sessions but from ones I did, I liked the research-based approach where the academics shared their abstract, research methodology and the findings in facilitated discussions.

Among the sessions, I particularly enjoyed and was challenged by was Women of Privilege or Woman of Circumstance? Exploring Influences on Women Leadership Styles. This session explored if or how self-identifiers among women influences and potentially creates limiting beliefs about their leadership styles and mindsets.

Privilege” was defined as having special advantages, benefits or experiences while “Circumstance” was defined as happenstance, attributes or demographics.  

According to Devnew & Storberg-Walker 2018, “success in developing women leaders often comes from helping women recognize the barriers they individually face as they become unique, effective women leaders”.

Many women shared stories of how their privileged upbringing became circumstance in their adult life. Growing up in Britain as second-generation immigrant; I am aware that my race, class, caste, gender, religion, age and education has influenced my leadership style. Education, my Father had told me, was my passport to success. Indeed, he was right.

I qualified as a teacher but never taught. However, it gave me the confidence to pursue other paths (like a career in the cultural and creative industries), gain access to status, power, knowledge and resources. Migration, education, cross cultural and class marriage moved me from circumstance to privilege.

The big takeaway from the research presentations and discussions for women leaders was the need to cultivate a growth mindset, remain forever comfortable with taking risks, never settling but continuously renewing and moving forward.

Closing Plenary By Caroline Kisia, Executive Director, Action Africa Help International

It was an honour and privilege to meet Caroline Kisia at the ILA 4th Women and Leadership conference. A remarkable woman who shared her leadership insights and lessons drawn from her career and current work with refugee populations in six fragile conflict and post-conflict countries in Africa.

Caroline is an avid hiker who has climbed Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro and the Imja Tse in the Himalayas, and is in training for a marathon. She weaved her experiences of climbing with her leadership journey.

A doctor by training, she recalls vividly how scared she was when, at the age of 27, she found herself leading staff at her hospital. She said the experience taught her to seek help, take ownership and responsibility.

She is a firm believer in leading by doing, having the courage to take risks and drawing on all available resources. The challenge, as she put it, is “how to sustain the idealism of youth as we get older in leadership roles.”  Other keys thing to remember from her speech are:

  • Energy and courage are what define leadership.
  • Hold the big picture from self to the community and when faced with obstacles, be prepared to adapt.
  • Experience the joy to be alive in the moment and let the teams we lead enjoy life.

Finally she said, “Leadership is a practice, be prepared to step out of our comfort zones. There will moments of self-doubt, you will experience the imposter syndrome. Surround yourself with people you trust, who will speak the truth, mentors who can guide, be open to new learning, and bring the whole of yourself in leadership.”

Thank you Caroline Kisia for inspiring us with your work in Africa and for your leadership.

The Feature Documentaries

The organisers curated four remarkable documentary films which were screened at the end of each day of the conference.

This Changes Everything 

Sadly, I missed the screening of This Changes Everything, but I managed to see it later. This feature documentary by Tom Donahue and Geena Davis examines sexism in the Hollywood film industry.

Through interviews with a variety of actresses the film uncovers “what is behind one of the most confounding dilemmas in the entertainment industry – the under-representation and misrepresentation of women”.

This Changes Everything gathers a cornucopia of prominent female actors and directors for a powerful call to action on elevating women’s roles in film and television both on and off screen. Meryl Streep, Sandra Oh, Jessica Chastain, Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon, Taraji P. Henson, and executive producer Geena Davis are among the many powerful agents of change in the documentary. A must-see film which clearly had an impact as was referenced over and over again during the three-day conference.

Eva: A-7063

At the age of 10, Eva Mozes Kor along with her twin sister survived medical experiments conducted in Auschwitz by Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele, in 1944. At 50, she helped launch the biggest manhunt in history for the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Now at 85, after decades of pain and anger, she travels the world to promote what her life journey has taught: Hope, Healing and Humanity.

Directed by Ted Greed, Mika Brown, and WFYI Public Media, Eva: A-7063, tells her story: a woman who lost all her family in the Nazi gas chambers and yet she refuses to be a victim or to judge and emerges as an advocate for forgiveness.  

As she says, “forgiveness is the only way to heal yourself and the world around”. She adds “why we always look for the – justice must be done? If the justice at any cost would work, the world would not be in such a mess.” 

This deeply moving record of the personal memory of a victim who refused to be beaten reconnects us with the past, present and stories of lives changed after hearing about her experiences and life perspectives.

Watching this remarkable 90-minute film at the conference, I reflected on another great leader, Nelson Mandela, his resilience and capacity for forgiveness and healing.

Algeria: Women at War

Watching my own film—which I produced in 1992 for Channel Four Television—was an overwhelming experience. Memoires of the making of the film in Algeria at the height of the rise of FIS as women struggled for their fundamental rights came flooding back.

I had gone to Algeria to interview women who had fought in Algeria’s war of independence from the French (1954-1962) and wanted to know what had happened to them after the Revolution under the single party rule for 30 years and their place in the politics of the time.

Using a combination of interviews and archival footage; the film reflects on the position of women in Algeria, the rise of Islam and increasing political violence. It raises critical questions about the balancing act between women’s and national liberation struggles.

As I watched my film with the conference audience, I pushed back the tears, knowing that their struggle for justice continues today. The documentary was shot in 1992 and broadcast on Channel Four Television the same year. Since then, the film has been distributed by Women Make Movies, based in the US and is constantly being shown around the world.

Miss Representation

Written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Miss Representation exposes how mainstream media and culture contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America.

This searing documentary reveals a glaring reality we live with every day but fail to see – how the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls makes it difficult for women to feel powerful and achieve leadership positions.  

Stories from teenage girls and provocative interviews with politicians, journalists, entertainers, activists, and academics, like Katie Couric, Rosario Dawson, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Cho, Condoleezza Rice, Rachel Maddow, and Nancy Pelosi; build momentum as Miss Representation accumulates startling facts and statistics.  The film leaves you shaken, but armed with a new perspective – An Inconvenient Truth of sexism in the media.

1440 Multiversity – the Location

Most conferences, forums or summits are held in five-star hotels in some capital or second tier city around the world. However, the organisers of ILA 4th Women and Leadership Conference could not have chosen a more beautiful, majestic, nourishing, and alive with ancient redwoods conference venue.

1440 Multiversity, founded by Scott Kriens, retired CEO of Silicon Valley’s Juniper Network, and his wife Joanie, is indeed an immersive learning destination where energy, discovery, and creativity flourish set against the backdrop of 1000 year old redwood forest. 1440 Multiversity is 75 -acre campus of the former Bethany Bible College, which has been turned into a world-class learning and retreat centre. 1440 is the number of minutes in a day.

After the three-day conference, I decided to stay back for a few more days of rest and renewal, walking along the redwood trails, taking tai chi classes, and time to read and reflect.  It really is a place “destined to connect”.

One morning, I woke and headed for the 7am yoga class only to find no one there. After a few inquiries, I was told the venue had been changed and they gave me the new location. I think they said room 204 or was it 201. Anyway, I was few minutes late and saw lots of shoes outside the door, so without thinking I opened the door and quietly found a free mat and joined the class, led by an Indian yoga teacher.

It was an amazing class and as I was leaving one of the participants came up to me and asked if I was part of the group. I said no, but I was a guest at Multiversity who was enjoying their yoga classes every morning. She said, “Oh I see, but this group is only for those who have signed up and that I should have gone to the next room around the corner for the regular classes.” Imagine my embarrassment!

At breakfast, I saw the Indian yoga teacher and went to apologies for crashing his class. He responded to me in Hindi and I discovered he is the Founder of Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh, India where he teaches Akhanda Yoga.

In 2010, we bought a house in a small village just outside Dehradun, just 45 KM from Rishikesh. For a while now, I have been looking for a place where I can deepen my practice and understanding of yogic sciences. Here was the teacher I was in search of at 1440 Multiversity! Call it serendipity but this just one of many deep meaningful human connections I made during my 7 days stay at 1440 Multiversity.

A huge debt of gratitude to the leadership and staff of the International Leadership Association for an amazing conference.