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Leading from the Inside Out:
Elizabeth Lesser's Keynote Address at the 2011 Women & Power Retreat

elizabeth lesser

Welcome to everyone—to those of you who have been at our Women and Power conferences before, and to those new to this gathering. This is our first Women and Power Retreat—and I’ve been looking forward to it all year. It’s different from the conferences we have held on the same subject for the past ten years. Let me explain why we’ve decided to create a cycle where every-other-year we offer a big Women and Power conference and then on the in-between year, a retreat. The conference will continue to be a gathering of visionaries and artists and leaders from all over the world who’ve come together to inspire women’s passion for activating change. And the retreat will be a more introspective gathering; a time for each of us to go within to strengthen, to heal, to find our voice, to reinvent ourselves, to confront any inner changes we may want to make in order to become the kinds of leaders we’ve been waiting for.

I was reminded recently of why we chose to begin this cycle of conference and retreat. I have given a keynote speech at each of our annual conferences, and I decided to re-read them all in preparation for this first retreat.  It was interesting to see how my thinking about the topic of women and power has evolved over these ten years.  At the first few conferences, I boldly proclaimed that when women are finally given their rightful chance to lead—at home, at work, in the world—we do it differently. We’re less divisive, and more inclusive. Less combative, and more communicative.  Less quick to judge and punish, and more apt to empathize and embrace.  But several years into the conferences, my keynote message become more nuanced, more layered. I have Sarah Palin to thank for that. And not because of her political beliefs.

Women, like all people, are entitled to a diversity of opinions and world-views. Rather, it was her “old paradigm” way of wielding power that disturbed me—and she wasn’t the only one challenging my cherished faith in women and power. The more I observed women in positions of power, the more I wanted to make a serious study of the subject.

And so, I became a voyeur of the good, the bad, and the evolving ways in which women acquire power and how we wield it once we have it. I scoured newspapers and websites and magazines and read about all sorts of women leaders, executives, artists, teachers, mothers…from different age groups and backgrounds and areas.  I re-read feminist history and I spoke to current leaders in the women’s movement. And, with apologies to my colleagues, I spied on the admirable and not always so admirable ways women here at Omega were getting, sharing, and brandishing power. The most important and unsettling research I did was to review my own dance with power, and to look squarely at the gulf between my noble intentions and my actual behavior in the heat of some leadership challenges. When I took off the rose-colored glasses, when I confronted the more shadowy aspects of women and power—in our most intimate, family relationships, as well as our more public positions of authority—things got murkier, but also more interesting, more realistic, and more strategic. As we continued to offer our groundbreaking Women and Power conferences, I stood by my bedrock conviction that women’s empowerment is critical for the salvation of humanity. But I started adding some caveats to the way I was talking about the subject. My blanket assumptions gave way to some questions:  

  • What does happen when we put the words Women and Power together?
  • Can we show the world a different way of dealing with conflict? More constructive ways of sharing power? A better reason for wanting to lead?
  • Will we learn to deeply trust ourselves, and each other, so that our dreams of a saner and kinder world come true?
  • Does power corrupt anyone, and if so, how does it show up in women? How can we recognize corrupted power within ourselves—ego power, passive aggressive power, perfectionist power, patronizing power?
  • Are we willing to take responsibility for our own missteps on the power path, and help each other get back on track? If we don’t, we will have lost out on one of the great opportunities in history.  

These are the questions and the hope that led us to create this retreat. We wanted to give YOU a chance to turn within and look at whatever it is that might be standing in the way of you becoming the kind of leader our world needs. And when I say leader, or when you hear anyone say the word leader this weekend, I invite you to hear your name. Because leadership is not reserved only for someone with a corner office.   A leader is anyone with a better dream for our culture, our kids, our eco-systems, our species. It’s anyone with the guts to take that dream and work it into a plan, a song, an organization, a school, a journey, a family, a book, a script, a run for office. No one leadership path is more important than any other. You are here this weekend to own and energize your unique purpose, your dream, your path.

We all spend a lot of time looking outside at what’s wrong with the world, at the flaws of our leaders, at the insane ways in which humans cause unnecessary suffering and depravation and terror. We all judge and worry and harangue about so many things run amok…Hey, I’m as much a kvetcher as any of you. Yet when we take that same energy, and every now and then shine its light on ourselves, think of how much progress we can make in our own healing, our own planning, our own leading. What sounds better, continuing to look outside yourself with fear and blame, or to clean up your own act, to strengthen your own spine, to support each other in bold and beautiful acts of love and revolution?

We’re here this weekend to do the latter.  Another reason we’re here is a very simple one. It’s to be together. To rest with each other, to listen to each other, to enjoy each other. Have you heard the term “bro-mance”? Not ro-mance, but bro-mance. I first heard it in one of those hilarious dude movies that my sons introduced me to. A bromance is an uusually close, non-sexual relationship between two men—like soul brothers. I have not been able to find a similar word to describe this kind of relationship between women, so I am making one up:

Wo-mance. W-O-M-A-N-C-E. You know when a friendship is a womance, usually the first moment you meet your new friend. You take one look at her, and you fall womantically, supportively, steadfastly in love. Women leaders need womances. I could not do the work I do without my womantic tribe here at Omega—friends and colleagues who keep me grounded, shower me with love, call me on my stuff, help me pick out clothes, and tell me when I have a piece of kale between my teeth.  I also want to give a shout-out to the extraordinary men here at Omega, and to the men in all of your lives who support your growth as an empowered woman. Bromances, womances, new ways of leading—none of this means much if women and men can’t  learn from each other and change the world together. That’s a topic for another day, but I did want to make sure I said it, because its something we are going to spend time working on at our Women’s Leadership Center. 

Over the years I have developed an international network of womances. Like Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues and V-Day. Eve started the Women and Power conferences with me. In our early years of organizing them, we would call each other up at any time of day or night, and cry and laugh and complain when our work got confusing or disturbing. Eve became my touchstone, my inspiration, and my safety valve. I cannot stress enough the importance of womances. Just a couple of days ago I got an email from one of my kick-ass womantic friends, the founder of Women Without Borders, Edit Schlaffer. You never know where Edit may be emailing from. Saudi Arabia or Syria, Africa or Asia. This time it was Northern Ireland where she was meeting with women from both sides of the conflict there, which, unbeknownst to most of us, is still fiercely entrenched.  Edit just needed to spill her guts, to worry aloud about the enduring lure of violence. She was able to remember, by making contact with a womantic friend, that change is possible, that her work IS making a difference, that despite exceptions to the rule, women ARE uniquely suited to usher in a new power paradigm. Every time I connect with one of my womantic tribe mates, I am renewed in my commitment to BE the change. I come back to my confidence in women’s ability to bring the best of their humanity into the leadership realm.

I think back to my early years of leadership. I had no womantic colleagues. I was the only woman in power here at Omega, and I had a few things working against me. First, I was 23 years old when I helped start this place. I was fresh off the boat from childhood. A childhood where the dad was king and the kids (in my case, 4 daughters) were the king’s subjects. By the time I reached my 20s I was a feisty, smart, ambitious young woman who had some really unhealthy coping mechanisms when it came to self-esteem, power, and leadership. Most of the time in those early years I felt like the mythological Greek figure Cassandra. Remember Cassandra? She was endowed with the gift of insight, but fated never to be believed. In many ways, ALL women have experienced the yoke of Cassandra: speaking out about what we KNOW, but being ignored, or labeled “hysterical” or irrelevant because it’s a chick-issue—and then becoming angry or losing our voice altogether. Or doing whatever it takes to get our foot in the door, and turning into the very kind of person we know is no longer the kind to lead our world. I did all of the above. I either hid out, pretending I didn’t want to lead, or I led like a whining little girl, or a manipulative teenager, or a crazy witch. It has taken me many years to learn how to lead like the strong and tender woman I am. It would have been a smoother ride with womantic friends to validate me, to support me, to teach me.  

One of our great womantic friends here at Omega is Pat Mitchell the past President and CEO of PBS, and the current head of the Paley Center for the Media in NY and Los Angeles. Pat curated the first TED women conference last December. It was a gathering in Washington, D.C. with some of the world’s most remarkable women giving very short talks over a three-day span. Pat had hoped to bring the president of Liberia—Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—to the conference, but President Sirleaf was unable to attend, so Pat interviewed her before the conference and showed just a few minutes of the film at TED. Pat called us a couple of weeks ago and said she had been reviewing the whole 20 minute interview and was sort of heartbroken that no one would ever get to see it in its entirety. She wondered if we would ever have the opportunity to show it. When I watched it I knew I wanted to share it with you. Because President Sirleaf is the kind of woman leader we would all like to count as a womantic friend and mentor. She’s one of those brave, imperfect, self-reflective, strong, caring, female leaders who is doing the new dance with power. I’m going to show you the video now, but here’s a little background information first: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in Liberia in 1938,  educated in the West, and involved in the uprising that eventually ended 25 years of bloody conflict in her country. In 2006, after being jailed, beaten, and having her life threatened, she became Africa's first elected woman president.  She took on a hard job: the wars had killed more than 250,000 thousand people and displaced three-quarters of Liberia’s population. The country’s infrastructure was destroyed—no electricity or water services and few roads, schools, or medical facilities. Despite all of this, and despite global recession, recovery is visible everywhere in Liberia since Ellen Sirleaf has become the president. Let’s watch the video. [To view the video and read Pat Mitchell's blog about her interview, click here.]


I want to recap five elements of this interview. Five qualities that radiate out from this wise woman leader. Developing these five qualities—let’s called them inner strategies—are the main reasons for our being together this weekend. Outer strategies, like communication and management skills, financial literacy, public speaking, grass roots organizing, etc., are equally important, but this being a Retreat, here are a few inner strategies that we’ll be focusing on all weekend.

2. Self-Examination
3. Balancing the Feminine and the Masculine
4. Nurturing Womances
5. Discovering Purpose

1) Let’s talk about Self-Validation. I know it’s controversial to assume that there is such a thing as an intrinsic female value system. But, whether it is a nature or a nurture thing, let’s just notice—not judge nor deny—how women, in general, do share certain proclivities: like, the impulse to communicate, to seek connection, to understand and respect feelings (or, to use a fancier term: emotional intelligence.) And let’s also make note of how—throughout history—these proclivities have been labeled a second-rate way of navigating one’s way through life, especially in the realm of leadership.  To be a sensitive, relational leader, who values process as much as profits—at home or work or in the world—has been invalidated as untrustworthy, sentimental, or unrealistic. Now, when a major part of one’s reality is questioned, it’s hard to stand firm in what you believe. But we are at a time in history when YOU need to trust your own values, and to stand up for what you know in your gut to be true.

Ellen Sirleaf is someone who believes in the legitimacy of her values. Here she is, the president of a post-conflict nation with pressing problems of economy, energy, security, political corruption, but whenever she is asked about how to deal with her country’s primary challenges, her first response is always about getting children back to school, youth employment, introducing lunch into schools, (can you imagine our top leaders talking about LUNCH?)…President Sirleaf knows that nurturing a “critical mass” of well-loved, well-fed, well-educated children leads to a productive and decent citizenry and nation. The point here is not for all women to push forth similar agendas, or to mimic another powerful woman’s sense of self. It’s to find out and to dignify what YOU care about. Validating your core sense of self is the first step in leadership.

 2) In order to excavate and validate your core values, it helps to slow down, turn within, and do the second inner strategy—Self-Examination. People involved in activism work or leadership—or just plain old busy people—often think they don’t have time for self-examination, or that it’s indulgent to engage in self-care, or therapy, or spiritual retreat. But I think self-examination is courageous and necessary for anyone wanting to make a difference in the world, or to reinvent themselves, or to be a new kind of leader. That’s why we are spending all of tomorrow doing it. Women have a lot of internal confusion about power and voice. Centuries of repressed creative ambition and muted power show up in women in all sorts of ways: depression, passive aggression, perfectionism, self-sabbotage, envy, bitterness, illness.  President Sirleaf could easily have turned her disempowerment into a reason to hide out or to lash out. She says what made the difference for her was the faith passed on from her mother. If you check out the most positive change-makers in the world—the Dr. Kings and the Gandhis and the Sirleafs, you’ll notice they all have an active inner life. It’s on the inside where we can confront our shadows, uncover our radiance, become whole, and learn to use adversity to strengthen our character. The tools of self-reflection—meditation, therapy, healing work—can be your greatest friends on the path of leadership.

 3) The third inner strategy is to seek Balance. In the context of women and power, I am talking about a specific kind of balance—the balance between the feminine and the masculine energies within every person, female or male. President Sirleaf calls this the balance between The Grandmother and the Iron Lady. Whatever we call it, women and men have an unprecedented opportunity now to usher in a balanced kind of leadership where both strength AND tenderness are not only respected, but are also required. I love the way President Sirleaf talks about her daily practice of balancing The Grandmother and The Iron Lady. And I also love how she says that as a woman, she is “a victor of circumstances.” Even though historical circumstances have thrust certain roles upon us, and even though other roles have been denied us, we have exactly what is needed for our times. We can bring missing human virtues into the leadership realm. We can become alchemists with our brothers until together we create a new and better way.

 4) I have already spoken about the power of Womances in a leaders life. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would never have become President Sirleaf without the market women—her tribe of womantic colleagues. Last year on this stage we met Leymah Gbowee, the leader of the Liberian market women, and learned about the wildly inventive strategies they used to turn their country around. They became a force to be reckoned with, way more powerful through their unity than any of them could have been alone. I hope you will intentionally cultivate your own market women—here at Omega this weekend—and at home and at work.

 5) And the last inner strategy is to uncover your Purpose. I believe each one of us comes into this world like a little acorn harboring within us the promise of a magnificent oak tree. That tree may take the form of a powerful teacher or musician or parent or athlete or counselor or inventor, or, as in little Ellen Sirleaf’s case, the president of a nation. If we lived in a perfect world, every child’s parents would be visited by the local wiseman or witchy woman, and be told, “This child will be great.” But, most of grow up being told to fit in, and many girl children are told to be small and careful, and then our little acorns become prisons, and the oak tree is stunted and we don’t ever grow into our greatness. To be great is not to be better-than. Discovering your purpose is not suddenly figuring out that you were meant to win the Nobel prize or scale Mt Everest. Rather, it’s about becoming comfortable in your own skin. Becoming unapologetically and genuinely who you are. Then you don’t end up doing things to impress other people, to capitulate to the culture, to please others or to piss others off.

You do it to fulfill your destiny and that gives you energy and insight. Now, you may be like Ellen Sirleaf, who says her scientific worldview initially made her question this whole idea of a coo-coo wise man spouting prophecy, but she eventually came to feel a responsibility and a joy to live up to his words.

Before I end, I want to lead you in a short exercise about this idea of purpose. Please put everything on your lap down and sit up tall. Raise your arms and stretch. Roll your shoulders. Your neck. Take a deep breath in, and let it out with a sigh. Again. Really mean it.  Now close your eyes. Listen to the breathing in the room. Listen to the stillness of the night. Feel your heart beating. Put your hand on your heart. That’s the same heart that started beating in your mother’s womb. ….Now I want you to follow your life back and back and back through youth and childhood and all the way to that moment when you took your first breath…See yourself as a baby. Your new skin, your tiny hands, your perfect features. Feel into the pure, vibrating potential of your newness. And imagine yourself opening your little eyes and the first thing you see is a wise woman or a wise man, looking into your eyes, seeing into your soul, knowing exactly what your most essential qualities are this time around; what you have come with, what you are uniquely qualified to give and create and accomplish. And imagine that the wise person turns to your parents and tells them about your essence. THIS CHILD SHALL BE GREAT, the wise prophet says, BECAUSE…. Imagine what the wise person tells your parents and teacher and culture what to do in order to help you thrive. I’ll be silent for a few minutes as you listen to the words of the wise man or woman.

I’m guessing that most of us in the room did not get a visit from the local shaman or witch, and maybe your little acorn was malnourished as you grew up. But, since we can be victors of our circumstances, know that your potential, your purpose is still fully present within you. Feel into it right now, and ask it to tell you what it needs in order to revive and to express itself. What might it find fulfilling, satisfying, and purposeful—for you, and for our world.

And now, open your eyes. In a couple of seconds you are going to turn to a person on either side of you. There’s a power in speaking out loud about purpose. This may feel risky or embarrassing, but what the heck. You may never see each other again. And this is a good time and place to take some risks, even to start a brand new womance. So, find someone now and turn to face each other.  One of you will start, and you are going to tell the other what the wise person said, or share some images that arose, and tell each other how you want to activate NOW your essence, your purpose in your life. I’ll interrupt in a couple of minutes when its time for the second person to share. Keep it short and sweet.

Thank you everyone. Thank you so much for being here. For answering the call to come to this brand new idea—the women and power retreat. We look forward to sharing the rest of the weekend with you.


This speech was delivered by Elizabeth Lesser at Omega Institute's Women & Power Retreat, “Leading from the Inside Out" which took place on July 8-10, 2011. For more information on The Women's Institute at Omega, visit


elizabeth lesserELIZABETH LESSER is the co-founder of Omega Institute, the United States’ largest adult education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, and creativity. She is the New York Times best-selling author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure (both from Random House). For more than 30 years Elizabeth has worked with leading figures in the fields of healing, spiritual development, and cultural change. Her work at Omega has included leading the organization, developing its curricula, teaching, and writing the yearly Omega catalog, a reference book that describes the work of some of the most eminent thinkers and practitioners of our times.

For many years, Elizabeth has spearheaded Omega’s popular Women and Power conferences, renowned gatherings featuring women leaders, authors, activists, and artists from around the world. In 2008 she worked closely with Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle in the creation of a ten-week online seminar based on Tolle’s book, A New Earth. The “webinar” was viewed by millions of people worldwide. She is an ongoing host on Oprah’ Soul Series, a radio program on Sirius/XM.

A student of the Sufi master, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan since 1971, Elizabeth has also studied with spiritual teachers and religious scholars from other traditions, as well as psychological practitioners and healers. Her first book, The Seeker’s Guide, chronicles the uprising of a new spirituality that she participated in and researched through her work at Omega. Her second book, Broken Open, is a guide for anyone going through a difficult time. Its real life stories inspire the reader to use adversity for inner growth. Broken Open has been translated into 16 languages.

Ms. Lesser attended Barnard College and San Francisco State University. Previous to her work at Omega, she was a midwife and birth educator. She has been active in environmental issues for many years in New York State's Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains, where she lives with her husband. She is the mother of three grown sons.

About Omega Institute for Holistic Studies
Founded in 1977, Omega Institute for Holistic Studies is the nation’s most trusted source for wellness and personal growth. As a nonprofit organization, Omega offers diverse and innovative educational experiences that inspire an integrated approach to personal and social change. Located on 195 acres in the beautiful Hudson Valley, Omega welcomes more than 23,000 people to its workshops, conferences, and retreats in Rhinebeck, New York and at exceptional locations around the world.

Related links:
Conversation with Elizabeth Lesser by Marianne Schnall
Column: The Spiritual Adventure by Elizabeth Lesser

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