When it comes to conscious leadership and social entrepreneurship, Karen Lee Downes literally wrote the book. Not only did she co-found and build an $8.5 million alternative healthcare enterprise in Australia, she went on to support five successful international startups, and is now a leadership consultant designing development programmes in global corporates such as Molton Brown, Intel, BP, Unilever and Virgin Atlantic among several others.
She is also founder and managing director of FemmeQ, an international movement based out of Costa Rica committed to creating new paradigms of thinking and acting in core sectors of society using feminine intelligence.
Shuttling between UK, USA and Costa Rica, Karen supports civil-society organisations in India and Bangladesh to transform entrenched cultural norms. A serious road cyclist who competed in the World Masters, Karen has authored six books that have sold over half a million copies.
In 2012, Karen launched The Flourish Initiative where she brings her expertise and hands-on experience to transform outdated organisational systems into those that enable human flourishing and business prosperity. We asked her to share her top tips for organisations and leaders.
What are the top qualities that business leaders need to develop (and especially women leaders) so that they can build sustainable and profitable enterprises?
Develop your three key intelligences. First, ‘Heart’. Develop deep listening. There is a vast difference between hearing and listening. Sounds carry a vibration, words express our perspectives, beliefs and concerns. All people wish to be heard, seen and known for who they truly are. By giving time to listen to our people, we are able to understand the important messages being conveyed at the heart of the business. Developing the quality of deep listening is a lifetime practice, it cannot be forced. When it is authentic, it comes from a deep concern for others and a curiosity to discover what lies beneath the surface.
Second, ‘Gut’. Trust your intuition. The left brain of rational and logical thinking has been overvalued and dominated our decision-making for centuries. The feminine way is instinctual and intuitive. This requires giving ourselves contemplative quiet time. It is the ability to understand something without the need for conscious reasoning.
Third, ‘Head’. Understand systemic thinking and the principles of systemic change in order to address the root causes of entrenched social norms, which are often intractable and embedded in networks of cause and effect. We can see these patterns play out in any organisation. Seeing the patterns and then taking intentional action to fundamentally alter people’s perspectives, mindsets and behaviours that cause the ‘system’ to behave in a certain way.
Please tell us about your work at The Hunger Project in India and Bangladesh. What inspired you to get involved and what have been your learnings?
When I was first introduced to The Hunger Project, I had been working with women for almost 10 years, across five countries. We exported our products and training programmes to different regions and I saw that, in every country, at every level of society, women were carrying the brunt of the load in their homes, and often in their organisations, and not being recognised for their worth or contribution.
One day, I learned that one of the main root causes of the chronic persistence of hunger had nothing to do with food, but was caused by the subjugation and marginalisation of women. The very next week I was on a plane to New York to be part of the solution to this problem. Going to the cause of the problem is the solution to transformation. I wanted to support the education of girls and empowerment of women.
The workshops we led in those countries were transformational for those women who changed the course of their life, the future of their families, and their villages. I became a global investor, activist and fundraiser, and visited India and Bangladesh every year for five years.
What is your view of patriarchy across developed and developing societies?
In every sector of society, in every country, the rules, the decisions made, the policies developed and governance of our systems – be it politics, education, science, medicine, religion or in corporations – have all been determined by men. For centuries, women have been recipients of what is handed to them or decided for them.
But now, across the world, the suppressed part of our human dynamic is rising and taking its rightful place to heal, protect and create a different world. That is the feminine rising in our human psyche. Women are taking up their agency to protect what is sacred for their children and future generations, and acknowledge that we must take a stand for a flourishing future.
What’s the key aspect of feminine intelligence that the world badly needs today, and why must women step up and take the lead?
I created The Flourish Initiative as I felt it was the very thing that was needed: to bring soul and wellbeing back to the heart of business. Flourishing doesn’t happen just on its own; it takes care, nourishment, nurturing and building resilience to face the challenges and uncertainties of the prevailing circumstances.
Just like we humans cannot fully develop without care, love and attention, so too, for organisations and enterprises to prosper, the people inside the system must flourish. In 2018, my team and I facilitated 49 two-day programmes for a major commercial airline in the UK over the course of 11 months – in each programme we had anything from 25-40 participants. It was a marathon but so worthwhile for what we learned and the experience we gained.
What we learned is that the feminine principle leads from respect for diversity, and inclusion of all generations who are still actively engaged, as their wisdom and maturity give guidance and experience to the others. We must lead from profound respect for the ‘other than me’ and must create environments that engender trust.
The feminine encourages the ones that lag behind, the ones that lack self-worth, the ones that have lost their way, and so many have in these challenging times. Let’s bring hope and possibility to the future and for the generations to come – after all, it is our superpower as women and our job!
Hear Karen speak at the upcoming FemmeQ retreat titled ‘Feminine Intelligence for a Regenerative Future‘ in Costa Rica and online this July. Read more and sign up here.
First published in eShe’s May-June 2021 issue