Rethinking Materialism from a Feminine Leadership Perspective

by Roya Akhavan, Ph.D.

Rethinking materialism involves asking two essential questions, among others. First, what is the difference between “materialism,” which is hazardous, and “material prosperity,” which is a worthy individual and social goal? And, second, what is the most effective mode of business leadership for moving society beyond materialism and facilitating the achievement of true material prosperity?

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This brief article is aimed at making a contribution to conceptual clarity regarding these questions and setting up a framework for our upcoming interactive discussions on these topics.

Materialism, Material Prosperity, and Happiness

The material prosperity paradigm differs markedly from that of materialism in its approach to a key area of existential human concern, namely, the question of happiness and the path to its achievement.

The materialistic paradigm places the primary locus of human happiness in amassing wealth for the purpose of satisfying personal desires. While all human beings have a necessary and legitimate need for material well-being, materialism goes far beyond meeting this need to view the pursuit of an insatiable appetite for material acquisition as the main path to happiness. A major corollary to this approach is the assumption that, as human beings, we are atomized entities capable of leading a meaningful and rewarding life on our own, engaged in an endless competition to live in plush gated communities locked away from the misery of others.

In contrast, the material prosperity paradigm views human happiness as being anchored in the ability to make a positive social impact while pursuing one’s own personal growth. A major assumption of this paradigm is that, as human beings, we are incapable of experiencing true joy if we are constantly surrounded by, and witness to, the deprivation and suffering of others.

Thus, unlike the self-centered propensities of the materialistic pursuit, the search for material prosperity is motivated by a desire to promote shared prosperity within a system that provides sufficient resources for all human beings to fulfil their potential. Instead of focusing on a constant competition to “get ahead” and score a win, the material prosperity paradigm upholds such core individual and systemic values as justice, compassion, communal orientation, and collaboration to produce win-win outcomes.

It is important to note that nowhere in the material prosperity paradigm is wealth itself seen as undesirable or suspect. Rather, the proper expenditure of wealth in the service of collective prosperity can become a means of achieving spiritual aspirations. The key question to be addressed, therefore, is not the intrinsic value of material wealth, but, rather, how it is earned, used, and distributed.

It may be appropriate, at this juncture, to undertake a deeper reflection on the common truism that, “money does not bring happiness.” Clearly, the history of humanity, as well as a large body of social scientific research, have provided ample evidence about the fact that people who pursue materialistic acquisition as their primary path to happiness often face severe disappointment. Yet, this does not justify poverty as a viable alternative. Those who live in poverty and work for a meagre income in systems designed to fulfil the materialistic pursuits of others, often do so at great cost to their health, well-being, and human dignity. Thus, in addition to being a root cause of the ongoing extremes of wealth and poverty across the globe, materialism may be viewed as a pathological approach to human happiness that, in reality, produces suffering for both the rich and the poor, albeit in different forms.

If we accept the material prosperity paradigm as the better solution to the welfare and happiness of all segments of human society, the next question becomes: What are the changes required at the individual and system levels to achieve an ultimate shift from materialism to material prosperity? Given that this is a vast topic, I will focus this discussion on just one aspect of the required systemic transformation, namely a shift in leadership models and values within business organizations — an area central to the economic life of society that has far-reaching implications for facilitating positive transformations conducive to material prosperity.

Feminine Leadership and Material Prosperity

It may be argued that the most effective business leadership model for facilitating a transformation away from materialism must, itself, embody the communal values inherent in the material prosperity paradigm.

Interestingly, since the 1990’s the scholarly literature on the topic of business management has continued to emphasize the need for moving away from the “old management” mindsets toward “new leadership” models in the interest of greater employee job satisfaction and optimal corporate productivity. In these studies, the new leadership models incorporate such communal values as “caring” and “nurturing” and place the emphasis on strengthening the quality of human connections within organizations. As Fairholm (1991) has put it, “A key characteristic of old-style management is the extent to which it is keyed to a money standard.” In the new paradigm, “Leadership is caring for people.”

A close examination of the research literature in this area reveals that the progression from the “old management” to the “new leadership” paradigm has corresponded with a shift from characteristics identified primarily with the “masculine” aspect of the species to values and orientations that have traditionally been associated with the “feminine.” This shift has included moving from, “Influence through exercise of legitimate power (position) to influence through persuasion (personal networking); from competition (play hard) to cooperation (play fair); from individualism (by me, for me) to collectivism (team first); and from exclusionary (divide and conquer) to inclusionary (power-sharing, sense of family).” (Smith and Smits, 1994). As such, “Modern characterizations of effective leadership have become more consonant with the female gender role.” (Eagly and Carli, 2004). A series of industry studies undertaken by McKinsey & Company on effective leadership in 2008 further concluded that, “Those leadership behaviors more often applied by women reinforce a company’s organizational performance on several dimensions.”

It is important to point out that, although the historic socialization of women tends to lend itself more readily to embracing a caring, nurturing, and power-sharing posture in leadership, both men and women are fully capable of exhibiting communal leadership values. I would, therefore, restate the conclusions of these and other more recent studies as follows:

In our contemporary, 21st century global society the primary attributes of an effective leader, whether male or female, reflect traditionally “feminine” characteristics.

In addition to the communal values already discussed, it is important to point out that another very important characteristic required of a true leader is having the moral courage to articulate, uphold, and consistently behave according to core leadership values even when difficult decisions are involved. Thus, it is the moral courage to uphold justice, for example, that is of paramount importance in this leadership profile, not “toughness” per se. Moral courage (as opposed to physical courage) may, arguably, also be attributed to the “feminine” aspect of the human species. This is a crucial distinction to make in the context of a topic which has traditionally been reduced to a “soft” versus “tough” dichotomy, with the “tough” side having been given the higher value.

How can the adoption of such leadership values as caring, nurturing, communal orientation, and moral courage in business organizations contribute to moving our society away from materialism and toward material prosperity for all?
This question will be at the heart of our upcoming interactive discussions in Geneva at ebbf’s annual conference #RethinkMaterialism .

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