Dr. Lorri Sulpizio: Lead From Humanity and Justice

Dr Lorri Sulpizio has vast experience in the field of leadership. She is executive director of the Conscious Leadership Academy and founder of the Center for Women’s Leadership at the University of San Diego. In addition, she is CEO of the Lotus Leadership Institute, also based in San Diego. As the principal consultant, she advises on a variety of leadership roles, ranging from corporate to sports management.

Embracing gender-fluidity in her own life, she envisions leadership in a context that does not separate male and female potentials or limit individual potential to gendered stereotypes. The learning she derived from basketball coaching informs team-building practices and values in her strategy for success.

The unique combination of values and experience she brings to her understanding of leadership contributes to a pioneering model of what it takes for individuals to succeed.

Lorri explains, “If each of us is willing to be more ‘gender-fluid’ in our approach to leadership, and how we show up in our work, I think we will find that our organizations can be full of men and women who can work together creatively, effectively, and equitably.”

A former basketball coach, she was terminated for activism against discrimination and inequality in her workplace. Lorri eventually received justice in a lawsuit, a difficult experience she describes in this interview. During that difficult time, she decided to focus on women, authority and voice in her Ph.D. studies.

As an influential center director, researcher, consultant and leadership coach, Lorri shares her insights with She Can about the boundless possibilities which come from changing the ways in which we identify ourselves and each other. Lorri’s pioneering vision and grounded advice is one through which women and men can live highly effective, productive, deeply connected and unlimited lives.

The cast and crew of Space Oddity

Leadership & Gender Fluidity - Changing Perceptions Women & Men As Distinctly Different Categories

Traditionally, we are used to thinking of men and women bringing something different to the table. Lorri encourages us to consider the “limiting” expectations that gender brings to our notions of leadership. Qualities we tend to associate with women are also available to men and vice-versa. Our perceptions of the norms have the power to limit our potential.

Lorri Sulpizio: I always want to be careful in identifying gender-specific strengths or characteristics with leadership. I think this has been used to disadvantage women in that the characteristics most typically associated with effective leadership are rooted in masculinity. Such as making quick decisions, being logical, assertive, dominant, etc.

I firmly believe that all of us, both men and women, have the capacity to exhibit and demonstrate both masculine and feminine leadership qualities.

That being said, there are certain societal characteristics more associated with feminine behaviors that are critically important to leadership, and most likely, women find these behaviors easier to access. These would be things like attending to fears and feelings, displaying care and empathy in the workplace, fostering collaboration, and having a strategic vision around doing things differently.

Lorri recognizes the seemingly authoritative messages that come from the outside that women may internalize. She cautions against this in favor of women bringing to the fore their authenticity.

Lorri Sulpizio : I think for women, the biggest leadership potential is to develop their own self-awareness and authenticity. We get so many messages about how we are supposed to act and the way that we should lead that we often have a hard time connecting with the authentic leader that resides within us. The other potential is to foster a strong community of allies. These allies can be a support system when remaining authentic is challenging, then can help with accountability to keep us aligned with our integrity, and they can become partners in disrupting the system and advocating for change.

In wondering, what is the elemental balance of ineffective leadership, I was delighted that Lorri offered an alchemy that was entirely new to me. In moving into uncharted territories in our life, we must be driven by confidence and curiosity. Lorri explains the way that curiosity and confidence sustain each other while we take steps forward.

Lorri Sulpizio : When I think about the women I work with, the ones who are the most effective at leadership are the ones who have a mix of curiosity and confidence, and they spend the time nurturing both. Curiosity allows them to stay open to possibilities and connect with others without judgment. Confidence helps ground them in their values, hold necessary boundaries, and advocate for what they believe in. This is not to say that they are always confident, but when they feel uncertain, their curiosity helps them explore what it might be about.

A scene is filmed in the fields.

SShe Can asked Lorri, “What is the ONE thing organizations need to do to shift the advancement of women in the workforce?” Faithful to her admiration of disruptors, she decided to do her own disrupting by offering TWO recommendations, the sign of an active mind and spirit. Her decision to break the mold shows how much she feels individuals should not be bounded by imposed norms. Perhaps, that instinct to go after the extra, to stretch the possibility, comes from her coaching days, but “going for it” is certainly an integral part of her leadership philosophy.

I believe all of us need to break free from ‘women do it this way and ‘men do it that way because it’s inherently limiting to the way both men and women get to be and the way we get to act.

I believe all of us need to break free from ‘women do it this way and ‘men do it that way because it’s inherently limiting to the way both men and women get to be and the way we get to act.

Lorri Sulpizio : I’m actually going to say two things, so I’m breaking the rules of it. But I think one of the first things we need to do is stop thinking about women and men in such distinctive and separate categories. I believe all of us need to break free from ‘women do it this way and ‘men do it that way because it’s inherently limiting to the way both men and women get to be and the way we get to act. The gender revolution is really helping this because it’s pushing back on the ideas that women and men are so bounded by separate behaviors, styles, and traits. It’s true there are certain social standards that we adhere to, but I have met women who are incredibly assertive and decisive, and I’ve met men who can be incredibly tender and nurturing. I don’t want to debate if these things are a product of nature or nurture. I truly think it’s a combination of both. But if each of us is willing to be more ‘gender-fluid’ in our approach to leadership and how we show up in our work, I think we will find that our organizations can be full of men and women who can work together creatively, effectively, and equitably.

Trust your inner voice and intuition.

Now with that being said, there is still a large gender power differential in society and in our organizations. And so I think we need to explicitly address this power differential, but do it in meaningful and truthful ways. I do a lot of work with organizations attempting to have real conversations that expose the imbalanced dynamics around power and privilege that lead to toxic cultures. Women need to be able to share about the discrimination that they face, the hardships that they encounter, and the way that their organizations don’t allow them to fully thrive. And the top-level leadership in those organizations needs to be willing to hear it. So this is both the combination of women being willing to speak up about the continued bias and discrimination they face and for leaders to deeply listen so that we can begin to shift our organizational cultures into a more equitable space.

In considering that one piece of advice to aspiring or practicing women leaders, Lorri returned to the consciousness which is so fundamental to the leadership model she embraces. She directs us to a capacity that is inside us all. When you are searching for direction on the best way to lead, the most authoritative voice is your own.

It’s nurturing the strength of that spirit that helps us navigate the challenging world we live in. That strong spirit can be a guide that we can trust.

Lorri Sulpizio: Trust yourself. Trust your inner voice and intuition. This means you have to discover and develop that inner voice, which is directly related to your self-awareness. Part of this work includes working to quiet the other distracting voices in our head. The ones from our parents, religious leaders, siblings, teachers, friends, colleagues, bosses. Those voices that cause the doubt and shame.

It’s nurturing the strength of that spirit that helps us navigate the challenging world we live in. That strong spirit can be a guide that we can trust.

Inside of each of us is a strong and resilient spirit, and while that might sound a bit corny or cliche, it’s nurturing the strength of that spirit that helps us navigate the challenging world we live in. That strong spirit can be a guide that we can trust.

So my advice to women is to trust yourself. Your knowing is a powerful one.

Give Yourself Grace, Latitude & Boundaries For Life's Terrain

When Lorri considers what women need to stop doing, and do more of, she does not hesitate. Her answer responds to the negative effects of life’s perfection, which we see through all media forms. Lorri shares about the grace and latitude we need to practice when we are facing life adversity.

Lorri Sulpizio : I think women need to stop being so hard on themselves.

Most of the women I know are doing so many things, from raising children to keeping their household in order, working as professionals, and trying to have some form of self-care. The pressure and intensity for women has only increased during the pandemic, and I firmly believe that the pressure was there before–we just face a different level of it right now. Additionally, it’s impossible not to get on social media and see somebody’s perfect plate of dinner or amazing craft for their child’s third-grade class and feel like you’re just falling short and disappointing everybody around you.

We really need to stop this. I know for me I get very hard on myself when I can’t stick to my exercise routine. Fitness is a huge part of my life and when my days get so busy that I don’t get my workouts in I get incredibly frustrated.

But this is where we could give ourselves some latitude. Our lives are more a terrain of peaks and valleys rather than a flat plateau, so there’s going to be times when things are very difficult, and the things we want to have in our lives feel impossible to achieve, and then there’s going to be other times when we feel like things are going really well and we’re getting everything done that we want to get done. I think having grace and latitude during those difficult times is incredibly important.

And then related to this, I think we need to start having better boundaries. And we need to stop apologizing for the boundaries we put in place. Often, women don’t want to say no because they don’t want to disappoint people. So we take on projects for other people and commit to events that we don’t want to go to. But the thing is, other people’s disappointment is not ours to manage. That’s their work to do. The other kind of boundaries we need to do better with is emotional boundaries. We give other people too much space in our minds, and they don’t really deserve to be there. So clearing our heads of the negative talk from others is a strong boundary we need to hold.

I think we need to start having better boundaries. And we need to stop apologizing for the boundaries we put in place

I think we need to start having better boundaries. And we need to stop apologizing for the boundaries we put in place

Lorri tells us one of her most trying experiences and shares her wisdom with us how she was able to get ahead of the experience by showing herself grace and latitude and setting boundaries.

Lorri Sulpizio : I was fired from my job as a head college basketball coach in 2007. I pushed too hard on the organization around issues of gender equality, and I paid the price. Three amazing employment law firms took up my case and we sued the District, the School, and the Athletic Director and won our case in a trial by jury. It was at the same time both an amazing and excruciating experience for me.

I had to give myself latitude. Even though it was a wrongful termination, getting fired never feels good and there were times during the lawsuit that I would beat myself up mentally and emotionally. I had to find my inner strength to get through this experience, and I was able to do that by giving myself grace.

At the same time, I really had to practice boundaries. I like Brené Brown’s definition of boundaries as ‘what’s okay and what’s not okay.’ I had to be clear with myself and with others about what was okay and not okay during that time. This was a time in my life where I birthed two of my 4 kids, was finishing up my Ph.D. in leadership and trying to pivot my career after being fired—all while in a big lawsuit. Boundaries were critical to me moving through all of these things. So often, I felt competing demands on my time and attention. I had people who wanted to provide support and people who were ready to betray. My own ability to hold to what was okay and not okay and set boundaries for myself helped me successfully navigate all that I faced.

Your Power Is Rooted Within Your Deep Connectedness With Yourself

At She Can magazine, we have asked the question to many women about feeling powerful and understanding power. The responses always bring insight and intrigue about women’s particular relationship to power. Lorri’s special sense of internal power is stunning, quite simply because it is rooted not in seeking external validation but truly knowing herself and being herself.

I also think that power comes from a deep connectedness to oneself.

I also think that power comes from a deep connectedness to oneself.

Lorri: I feel very powerful as a woman. I actually feel incredibly powerful in living my life from a truly authentic place. For me, this has to do with my sexuality and my gender expression. I think power is an attitude and a state of mind. On one hand, it is being able to influence the outcomes that we want. So having a deep belief that we have agency over our lives and can carve our own path in the way that we want to is one aspect of power. Yet I also think that power comes from a deep connectedness to oneself.

When we do the work to find out who we are and live out our lives authentically, we can feel incredibly powerful in our sense of self. This is more of an internal power that resides deep within us. It’s the feeling that ‘I will be okay no matter what happens in my external world. There are certainly ways to nurture this, like having people around you who love you unconditionally, fostering positive inner self-talk, but that may be a topic for another article.

Inspire Us - Be A Disruptor

The changemakers and change embracers inspire Lorri, those who see flaws in the system that need correcting, the justice seekers, the vibrant color my world advocates who want each individual to find their place.

Lorri Sulpizio: I think the women that I admire and look up to are disruptors. And I think I see that a lot in my own life as well. These are women who aren’t afraid to raise difficult issues, challenge the system, advocate for what’s right, and they do all of this unapologetically. They’re willing to name things that need to change, and then they’re working to actually create that change. I’m thinking of people like Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem, Brené Brown, Roxanne Gay, Hannah Gadsby, Megan Rapinoe, Tarana Burke, P!nk. Women in different Industries, doing different kinds of things, but essentially all disrupting the system in their own way so that they can not only live authentically themselves, that make the world better- for other women, for people of color, for LGBTQ. Sometimes the disruption isn’t a huge protest or movement but the quiet voice that begins the next day.

Lorri Shares Her Life Wisdom With You

Have you ever considered the three pieces of advice would you give to all the women in the world? Lorri gifts hers with a personal story of how she celebrates her own humanity by learning from uncertainty, and knowing oneself well enough to identify core values. Follow your heart, she advises, but always keep a keen eye out for what catches your heart.

Lorri Sulpizio : Wisdom is one of my values, and while I’m not that old, (46), I think my life experiences have given me some insight that could be classified as wisdom.

1.Be So Much More Than Stereotypes Allow You To Be

This comes from my experience being both a lesbian and gender-non confirming, two aspects of myself that I celebrate deeply. I think both men and women limit themselves by adhering to the rigid social standards and expectations that are set forth for men and women. We can be so much more than gender stereotypes allow. I love that I can birth my four kids, breastfeed them, nurture them with the powerful bond that is between a mother and child, AND shop in the men’s section, keep my hair short, and thrive in the world of sport and fitness. I hope the next generation of women continues to push back on social gender norms and expand the range of what women ( and men ) get to do and get to be. I know I want this for my sons as much as my daughter. I want each of them to embrace all that is available to them and feel free to explore what that means.

  1. Be Connected To Yourself

I think we can feel in control of our lives and have moments of feeling completely powerless. I think we can be both lost and found. I think we long for connection with others while having a hunger for freedom and individuality. We want security and we want adventure. Life is full of paradoxes and these can show up as uncertainties. And that’s okay. If we are connected to our own sense of self, we can learn to welcome these paradoxes and navigate the uncertainties. This will allow us to move through pain to get to the joy. It’s the wonderful complexity that is life.

  1. Recognize What Catches Your Heart

There was a motivational poster that I saw in high school that I always loved. It said, “There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only a few that will catch your heart. Pursue those.”

There is a part of this that has roots in authenticity and self-awareness, two things I believe are foundational for living a conscious and connected life. I believe that part of our journey is to explore what we value most, what matters most, and then to find ways to live that out in our life. Our values can be a road map and a guide for us in difficult times. It can help us find joy in our work and bring deeper meaning to our relationships. It’s not always easy to know what is most important and it’s even more difficult to live that out. For me, I knew my values of justice and equity clashed with the college where I coached that allowed so much discrimination and inequity. Those values were my compass during my lawsuit. I encourage women to dig deep and acknowledge what’s most important in their life. And it changes over time, so recognizing what catches your heart is a practice.

In conclusion, Lorri’s insights reflect the tremendous variety in her life experiences and her respect and encouragement for others to live out their lives in fullness, opportunity and authenticity. Her thoughts on the need to establish boundaries as women, especially, face increasing demands are key. Boundaries can help us navigate turbulent times and regular life with all of its responsibilities and uncertainties. Emotional boundaries can clear our heads and open up space for what we need to be valuing and cultivating. Boundaries can keep us from envying the social media “perfectionism” of others. Ironically, her words about the boundaries we do not need to set carry as much wisdom. We do not need to bound ourselves to the traditional expectations about women’s and men’s roles and limit ourselves, just because society set gender limits and stereotypes in the past. Lorri advocates no limits, especially socially constructed limits, when it comes to developing human potential. Hers is a philosophy of leadership that relies on a clear understanding of the authentic individual and then develops fully that person outside of the constraints of gender. Her observation contains so much promise: “We can be so much more than gender stereotypes allow.”

Lorri Invites You To Learn More About Her Dedicated Transformational Work Across Institutions