Two decades ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the symbol of the hermaphrodite, a mythical being in which both masculine and feminine qualities are combined.
The earliest time the image of such an androgynous creature occurs in Western literature is in Plato's Symposium. During a drinking party, Socrates and other guests philosophize about the nature of love. At one point, Aristophanes explains how the original human was a round being with four arms, four legs and a two-faced head. These were powerful, almost godlike creatures, and human power led to human pride. To humble us, said Aristophanes, the gods split us in half, warning that more disobedience would be punished with further fragmentation. Ever since, humans are consumed by a yearning to recover their lost wholeness. To regain our power and find happiness we must find our missing half that will compliment us.
The ideal of the hermaphrodite recurs in every culture around the world, starting in Antiquity with Plato and Ovid through modern times in Star Wars and countless futuristic novels.
My thesis zooms in on the theme of the hermaphrodite in a nineteenth-century French novel by Théophile Gautier. It tells the story of a young woman who just finished school and is about to be married, when she decides she first wants to have a chance to explore the world. Since this is not an option for girls in her society, she disguises herself as a man and spends a couple of years in this androgynous position where she is female on the inside and male on the outside. The journey is instructive, to say the least, providing her with a perspective of both/and instead of either/or. She emerges transformed by the experience and ready to take on her life.
Fortunately, we can learn and practice the yin and yang approach to life without going through such experiments. Not only has the women's movement opened the door to equal opportunity, many professions offer a level playing field for men and women alike to grow and prosper.
Yet successful leaders also need to balance feminine qualities (connect, nurture, support, empower, listen, coach) and masculine qualities (strategic planning, action, goal-setting, decision-making and accountability), first within themselves and then within their organizations.
I remember just before my father passed away, he empowered my mother with the following words: "You are now the mother and the father." Leaving her behind with five children, he encouraged her to embrace both her masculine and feminine sides and stand in the fullness of that power.
Among its many gifts, our business offers a similar opportunity to be the follower and the leader, the nurturer and the implementer, the listener and the speaker. As we learn to flow between opposing energies, we can access the power of both and reclaim the wholeness that is our origin and our destiny.
JOSEPHINE GROSS, Ph.D. is cofounder and editor of Networking Times.