In 2011, when the wall of water hit the Kinoya seafood factory in Ishinomaki, Japan, 800,000 cans of seafood were swept away. In the months and years that followed, as Japan worked to recover from the massive impact of the tsunami, a remarkable movement grew out of the devastation. Volunteers began collecting the cans. One-by-one the cans were cleaned of the sludge and debris that covered them, brought back to the factory and repackaged. About half of those recovered were saleable and were sent to stores around the country. The cans soon became known as cans of hope.

However, there was a problem – the labels had been washed away. This meant that the contents were a surprise to the purchaser. Undeterred, the Japanese public began decorating the cans, leaving messages of hope and encouragement. The story of hope had taken a whole new direction.

John Gerzema shares this story at the start of his TEDx talk as an illustration of a powerful leadership trend that I have observed for sometime. He calls it the “Athena Doctrine.” At the core of this is an approach to business and leadership that is breaking away from the traditional ways of working – leadership that is more collaborative, flexible and nurturing. Gerzema suggests that this style of leadership is more “feminine” than “masculine.”


The Athena Doctrine was built on research carried out with over 60,000 participants in 13 countries. And one of the core findings was that 57% of adults are dissatisfied with the conduct of men. A fact with which 54% of men also agree. The most powerful aspect of this research, for me however, is the gap between the attitudes of men and the attitudes of the next generation of leaders – what we call Gen Y. As John Gerzema points out, the double digit disparity between men who hold the power in most societies and young people who hold little power, indicates an evolving transformation – and it is one that can be seen in most organizations today. Increasingly, those who are doing the hard work of leadership are not classified as leaders – they are people who understand the existing power structures and then find ways of working towards outcomes despite the impediments and challenges.

What do these leaders look like?

When participants in Gerzema’s study were asked about the topic of leadership, the results indicated that the traits most prized were those that were classified as “feminine” – including patience, intuitiveness, loyalty, future planning, collaboration and expression. Many of these traits, however, can also be observed in hacker culture – where participation is a requirement.


The Power of Social, Cultural and Economic Convergence

I am a fan of examining outcomes – and if we look at the outcomes of the traits identified in the Athena Doctrine, we get a pretty clear picture of the business impact that is possible. But rather than seeing this through a gendered lens, I prefer to look at the power available through convergence – not just of the traits and interests of leaders, but in a programmatic shift towards social, cultural and economic outcomes.

What does this look like?

Some time ago, I wrote on the kibbutz model of social media. In that article, I looked at the social, economic, cultural, participative and commitment aspects of the kibbutz that can be applied to an understanding of social media. But this can be extended and applied to the multiple, concurrent challenges facing leaders and businesses today. I call this “The Five Forces of Kibbutz Leadership”:

  • Social: We often try to compartmentalize our lives – public vs private, work vs life and so on. Today’s challenge for leaders is to acknowledge and understand the social fabric of our lives and the impact this has on performance and outcome. Rather than attempting to place arbitrary boundaries within our lives, leaders need to find ways to facilitate the flows between them on a personal, team and organizational level. This isn’t just about Facebook, it’s a simple acknowledgement of the complexities of our lives and a willingness to operate in that full knowledge.
  • Economic: We choose to work with those we like and trust – this applies at a team and a business level. If leaders don’t feel an affinity for their organization’s brand, they are not going to have a powerful positive impact on the business. Moreover, without that passionate connection between what you do and what you produce, leaders will not be able to infuse, energize and motivate their teams, engage their customers or generate shareholder returns. Maintaining a focus on the economic model creates a sustainable business model and platform for the future.
  • Cultural: Innovation and business success requires a supportive organizational culture. One of the key accountabilities of leaders is the creation, nurturing and growth of a culture that supports the business strategy. This means taking account of the social and economic elements and creating programs and policies that allow them to scale within your organization. It is the operating culture that you create that determines the velocity and momentum of your business – leaders must look to identify levers that accelerate that velocity where ever possible – and the key to this is culture.
  • Participation: We jokingly assert that there is “no I in team” – but like most clichés, there is an element of truth to it. By understanding the ways in which we all participate in the activities in an organization, we can understand more fully how to elicit and support on-strategy participation. In many ways, we need to follow Dan Pink’s advice and take money off the table – ensure that financial needs are met, but as in the kibbutz, our leadership focus needs to encompass a broader range of metrics, rewards and incentives.
  • Commitment: Being committed to a kibbutz takes hard work. Likewise, understanding the forces that shape and support leadership in this model requires a great deal of work, effort and commitment. However, by aligning the social, economic and cultural elements of your company with active and committed participants can drive your organization forwards. It will allow you to out-innovate and out-compete all players in your industry. In fact, it will allow you to transform the rules of your industry.

In his TEDx talk, Gerzema states, “femininity is the operating system of 21st Century progress.” I’d suggest that these traits provide a great way of understanding and surfacing leadership within your business. But our opportunity is to build upon this. Look at what happened in Japan – with Ms Iota Sae leading by example. What started as a simple act connected the social, cultural and economic needs and opportunities within her community. Her participation and commitment galvanized support across her country. In August 2011, she picked up the last of the 800,000 seafood cans. Her simple act of leadership inspired thousands. How many of us can say the same?