Should we ‘lean in’ to the ‘athena doctrine’?

I found myself reading two books on leadership last year that particularly piqued my feminist interest.  The first was The Athena Doctrine: How women (and the men who think like them) will rule the future by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio. The second was Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead by Sheryl Sandberg.  Both featured in the New York Times Bestseller List.

Both sets of authors come from the same essential starting point. That men, and male values, still rule the world, and that women, and female values, are sadly under-represented in all avenues of leadership.  Both books are clarion calls to end this imbalance, but each approaches it from a unique perspective.

lean_inLean In
seeks to “internalize the revolution” (to quote Sandberg), by inspiring one woman at a time to lean in, and find the inner resources to challenge the barriers that stand in her way. The Athena Doctrine by contrast, seeks to “externalize the revolution” (my interpretation) by calling for corporations and institutions to re-balance their cultural value systems, norms and behaviours.
Gerzema and D’Antonio have conducted extensive original research – a quantitative global sample of 62,000 people, plus an amazing array of interviews with inspirational female and male leaders across the world, who espouse Athena values. They are evidencing a seismic values shift towards the feminine that should not be ignored.

One of their findings that caught my eye: 66% of global adults believe the world would be a better place if men thought more like women. The authors’ prescription for this new style of leadership includes the following tenets:

  • Dismantle the ego, which places humanity in the back seat to self-interest, and champion fairness as a core value.
  • See vulnerability as a strength; sharing and learning from mistakes, rather than hiding them, as in the masculine model.
  • Aspire to influence, rather than power and status. Have an opinion that’s sought after, and the ability to spread it through one’s networks.
  •  Be selfless.  Contribute value to your organization, rather than extract value from it. If you don’t share, you are road kill.”

Where The Athena Doctrine can be seen as a challenge to businesses or institutions to change their masculine ways of thinking and behaving, Lean In is more of a how-to guide for women who want to succeed in the face of these hurdles. Coming to this book second, I was interested to see whether Sandberg would get in touch with her inner Athena. What you find is a point-of-view that both upholds these feminine values, and contradicts them.

On the one hand, she is asking women to lean into a corporate world created by men, putting the responsibility on their shoulders to change their approach to their careers, while operating in cultures that will not change.

She quotes her mentor Larry Summers, who once advised his tax lawyer wife to “bill like a boy.”

On the other hand, Athena-like, she embraces her vulnerabilities, and opens up about her insecurities — that most women will be able to relate to — such as the fear of being found out, or the fear of not being liked. Much of her focus is, in fact, on these “internal obstacles” that women thrown down in their own way, and she seeks to give counsel on how to overcome them.

It is perhaps for this contradiction that Sandberg appears to be a pragmatic realist, and I warm to her because of it.

I think that both of these books are important additions to the leadership shelf, and not just for women. They do not stand in opposition, even though they are very different — both have something important to contribute to this on-going debate. The answer has to lie somewhere between the external approach – a change in corporate and institutional value systems, and the internal approach – a change in women’s own belief systems.

One thing is for sure. Both keep the hope alive.



One thought on “Should we ‘lean in’ to the ‘athena doctrine’?

  1. Bernie Nagle

    Hi Maria,

    As a male who has honored and animated “feminine leadership energy” as the domiinant mode of interaction for over forty years, I tend to come down on the side of the Inside Game. Ever since I read Sally Helgesen’s seminal work in “The Female Advantage” I have believed (as Gerzema found) that feminine values: cooperation, long-term thinking, flexibility, collaboration, vulnerability…combined with strong will, competence and drive…will indeed rule the world eventually. I refer to it as learning to lead from your “Inner Other” – honoring both the yin or the yang within, and leveraging both masculine and feminine.

    Here’s a blog I recently wrote on the subject:

    I think you might enjoy the blog. Let me know if it resonates. Would love to connect on Linkedin if you are so inclined.

    Bernie Nagle


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