Season 3
35 Minutes

E94 | Nina Simons | How I Listen For Sacred FeminineLeadership

Nina Simons is the co-founder and Chief Relationship Officer at Bioneers, a nonprofit that champions visionary and practical solutions for many of our most pressing social and ecological challenges. Nina is passionate about reinventing leadership, restoring the feminine, and co-creating a healthy, peaceful, and equitable world for all.

Throughout her remarkable career, Nina has worked with nearly a thousand diverse women leaders across disciplines, race, class, age, orientation, and more to create conditions for mutual learning and leadership development. She has written the first and second editions of “Nature, Culture and the Sacred: A Woman Listens for Leadership.”

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Nina Simons  00:00

When I say the masculine and the feminine, I’m really referring to those deep archetypal qualities, the yin and the yang, if you will, that you know the ancient wisdom traditions, basically all say that we all have masculine and feminine within us, and that our best expression as human beings, is an integration and a balance between those two qualities.

Achim Nowak  00:30

Hey, this is Achim Nowak, executive coach and host of the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. If life is a five act play, how will you spend your FOURTH ACT? I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected FOURTH ACTS, listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you are listening on. Let’s get started. I am just delighted to welcome Nina Simons to the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. Nina is the co founder and chief relationship strategist at Bioneers. And she leads it’s every woman’s Leadership Program. Bioneers is a nonprofit that champions visionary and practical solutions from many of our most pressing social and ecological challenges. Nina, and I love this about you because I’m a leadership guy, and we’re going to talk about this. Nina is passionate about reinventing leadership, restoring the feminine, and CO creating a healthy, peaceful and equitable world world for all. Throughout her remarkable career. Anna has worked with nearly 1000 diverse women leaders across disciplines, race, class, age, orientation, and more to create conditions from mutual learning and leadership development. And now I’m going to get to the two things that may be really want to talk with you. One and you’re probably going where the heck is he going with this? Is Nina studied theatre arts and psychology at Cornell University. I studied theater arts and psychology. double major at George Washington University. Oh, no kidding. And she has written the first and second editions of a book. And I find this title Nina just totally irresistible. nature, culture and the sacred. A woman listens for leadership. That is so friggin awesome. Hi, Nina.

Nina Simons  02:37

Thank you. I came I hope other people feel that way to

Achim Nowak  02:42

talk about the book. Before we go there. I want to make sure we get to know a little bit about you. And I’m I’m always curious about listeners, you can tell Nina has had an extraordinary life. But always wonder like when you were young girl, you’re in high school and people ask you so Nina, what do you what do you want to do when you grow up? Well,

Nina Simons  03:03

there’s kind of a great story that I have about that a him which is that my parents were both artists. And so I grew up with a bias that my contribution to the world would probably be through the arts. And I fell in love with theater, both in high school and later in college. And I went to college in the 70s when there was a lot of producing of playwrights who were kind of edgy, you know, I considered them transformational theater. They were playwrights like Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard. And my idea of a good time. Theater was when people would leave, really questioning their own belief systems and a little uncomfortable from their experience of the theater. And and then of course, I went out into the world and discovered just how hard it might be to earn a living at transformational theatre. And I got kind of disillusioned. But it must have been nearly 20 years later that I realized that actually what I do with Bioneers is a form of transformational theater. And I was so happy to discover that I was like, Oh, look, I got my childhood dream. That’s amazing. And it’s a form I never could have anticipated.

Achim Nowak  04:29

I was so appreciate it. And I want to put it in my language is you. You actually allowed your initial desire to transform into a different context or to find it there. And it’s just a different way of expressing it, which is wonderful. Yeah,

Nina Simons  04:50

well, Mother life led me there. You know.

Achim Nowak  04:54

Let’s talk about other life. I want to confess I listened to you having a conversation with a dear friend of mine, Paul Elizur on the awareness podcast, which introduced me to buy in ears, and the work that you do. I believe you found it by news with your husband, Kenny. How does one one day wake up and say, Hey, let’s start something called Bioneers. Like, how does that happen?

Nina Simons  05:18

Well, at the time, we were social entrepreneurs, we had a company called Seeds of Change. And we were working furiously day and night at it. And my husband and partner Kenny, is a journalist, as well, as an entrepreneur. He was researching biodiversity and bio remediation. And he was finding that there were amazing people out there in the world that no one knew about who had come up with really innovative solutions for challenges the mainstream world wasn’t addressing well, and one day, he was bemoaning that fact, to a friend in a hot tub. And the end, he was telling this friend all about the people he was learning about. And the friend said, Why don’t you have a conference? And Kenny said, I’ve never been to a conference, it sounds boring. Why would I do that? And the friend said, here’s a grant for $10,000 Go have a conference. And Kenny came to me because of my theater background, and said, Will you help me make a conference. And so the two of us with beginner’s mind, created what we thought would be a cultural transmission and effectively helped to feature some of the great people he was learning about. And at the time, or him, I thought that, by near sounded a little bit sciency. For me, I wasn’t sure that it was going to be right for me. But I remember sitting there the first year, with my mouth hanging open and thinking, these are the leaders, I want to use my communication skills to support. And from that point on, it was sort of a gradual process of my becoming more and more involved, engaged and immersed in it, and contributing at higher and higher levels. And, and I think part of what I really love about Bioneers is that it’s not only people from all walks of life, but it really has indigenous worldviews and native wisdom at its heart. And so it’s deeply multicultural, and multigenerational. And it takes a very different approach than any other gathering I’ve ever been to.

Achim Nowak  07:44

Before we move on, I do want to reinforce that this started in a hot tub. And I want to just acknowledge that hot tubs are wonderful environments for conducting business. My impression is that Bioneers is this big think tank that meets regularly brings amazing thinkers together under the guise of a conference. But you also ended by saying it’s different from other conferences or other events. So would you describe the difference to our

Nina Simons  08:17

Sure? Well, you know, buy in your started out as an annual conference. And there was a feeling the first from the very first time that people were discovering their place of sacred worship, you know, it was like, oh, here is my tribe, here are my people. So for many years, we just did an annual conference. But then since then, we have really expanded into becoming a media organization. And so we produce radio series that wins awards every year, and podcasts and videos. And there’s just a whole lot of online media. And of course, during the pandemic, when we couldn’t meet in person, we did virtual conferences and had people joining us from all over the world. So it was very exciting to feel the engagement of people from many different nations.

Achim Nowak  09:14

So I want to ask you an unfair and impossible question, but I’m gonna go there anyway, which is to a listener who they’re getting a gist of Bioneers and your mission and what you’re doing. If you had to describe take one moment from your decades of experience now or two moments that it almost epitomize god, this is why I love what we do. This is why I believe in Bioneers and tickets to a moment or two.

Nina Simons  09:41

Okay, that’s such a good question. I him. Well, there was a very early time in 1992, actually, where we had a panel of Native leaders native elders, to discuss the 500 year anniversary of Columbus coming to the show yours. And there was a governor from Acoma Pueblo named Patricia Gilbert. And I remember that he said, with absolute integrity and sincerity 500 years ago, you came and we welcomed you with open arms. If you came again, today, we would do the same. And I just felt my jaw dropped open. And I thought, I have so much to learn from these people. I mean, he happens to come from a Pueblo that received some of the most egregious and violent harms, from colonialism. And yet he was able to say that in a wholehearted and totally sincere way, and I thought, Oh, this is a place where I can learn how to be a human being. And that was just huge for me. And then since then, I mean, you know, this sort of leads into your inquiry about leadership, I came, but when I turned 40, a magazine acknowledged me for my leadership. And I didn’t like it at all. I felt like put a target on my back. I felt like I hadn’t earned it. You know, and I thought, if what I’ve learned from Bioneers, is that the Earth needs us all, to be leaders now, each in our own unique way, then the fact that I don’t want to be called a leader is a problem. And I wonder if that’s true for other people. And around that time, I started leading week long, immersive women’s retreats, as you mentioned in the intro with 20 women leaders at a time who we selected precisely because of their commitment and their proven capacity as leaders. And they would all come to these retreats and say, Oh, I’m not a leader, it became clearer and clearer to me that we have a real problem with our inherited definition and our mental models of leadership. At a time when I do believe we’re all called to be leaders. And Bioneers. Part of what I love about Bioneers is that one after another in this kind of theatrical and artful and dramatic way, that’s also really grounded in practicality and reality. I have witnessed 1000s of leaders who inspire me to no end. And sometimes I learn about something that they’re doing that I knew nothing about before seeing them on the stage. And it has helped me to clarify this question of how are we all reinventing leadership, so that it can become a word and a title that we can all wholeheartedly aspire to?

Achim Nowak  12:59

What I’m thinking about as I’m listening to you, and this, I see it as a potential tension, but it doesn’t have to be but I want to just give it to you. You know, the subtitle of your book a woman listens for leadership is just brilliant. I love it. At the same time, what I heard you talk about is the courage to have a voice and speak and not be a I’ll put the label subservient listener and I listening, not necessarily subservient part of the dance, I think is when do I speak strongly with a passionate point of view? And when do I listen for the leadership of others? How do you reconcile that within yourself and the people you see?

Nina Simons  13:43

Well, it’s so interesting that you frame that that way I came because I never would. I don’t see listening as a subservient act, I see it as a receptive act. And part of the premise of my book, and what I’m really fascinated by is that I believe that we have all inherited a culture, that’s bias towards the human capacities that we associate with the masculine and against the human capacities that we associate with the feminine. And, you know, my air quotes around those gendered words are important because really, I think the definitions we’ve inherited are a little twisted to

Achim Nowak  14:30

say to our listeners, because we’re recording on video, you’re not seeing the air quotes, but I am seeing them so you’re, you’re only gonna hear the voice but they’re

Nina Simons  14:39

right. But you know, but when I say the masculine and the feminine, I’m really referring to those deep archetypal qualities, the yin and the yang, if you will, that you know the ancient wisdom traditions, basically all say that we all have masculine and feminine feminine within us. And that our best expression as human beings is an integration and a balance between those two qualities. So, in perceiving the imbalance that I perceive in our culture, what I see is that we all like to talk more than we like to listen. By and large, we think that action is better than rest or contemplation. And I actually am coming to believe, as I enter my fourth act, I need to disabuse myself of those imbalances. That even having worked on it for so long. So I see listening as an active thing. And as a way of listening for guidance for connection. And listening before being able to respond.

Achim Nowak  15:56

I want to just share a very quick story. From my perspective, as a male executive coach, where I learned this lesson from me this is very early on over 20 years of my career, and I was coaching him at a coaching session with somebody very senior. I felt like I was really out of my league. And I’m listening to him, I’m listening to him. There’s a little voice says, said to me, like, you should say something once in a while you need to change. You’re being paid to be helpful. How occasionally chimed in, and but at the NFL, like shift. And when we wrapped up, he shook my hand and said, You were so helpful, and I got it. But listen, I needed to learn in that moment, which is, in a way, what you’re talking about,

Nina Simons  16:42

yes, your presence was what he needed and your active listening. I think as human beings we all crave being deeply listened to. And I think that we’re in a time of transitioning from valuing things, to valuing relationship. And if we are to survive as a species, we better make that shift. And I think it involves a lot more listening.

Achim Nowak  17:11

I want to go a little deeper with that. But in my own life and my own spiritual journey for the last 35 years, I have tried to put a label on it, it’s been would be Hinduism and with teachers who embody the divine feminine. And that was my way of stepping into that world. My sense of view has been, because you’re passionate about women’s leadership and all its many expressions and the exploration of what that is. And I’ll put some language on and please dispute me that part of the journey has been to understand how patriarchal the system is and how women need to find different forms of leadership in a culture that can be leaves the word so framed by toxic masculinity. Where do you want to take that one?

Nina Simons  18:03

Ah, great. Well, it’s so interesting that you say that. I think that that’s true. And I think that we all are in a process of healing from toxic masculinity. I just read a fascinating book review this morning in the New Yorker, called What’s the matter with men? And it summarizes a lot of what I think we all have experience of which is that by and large men are in a tough way right now. I think we’ve all inherited biases that require that we look quite deeply within ourselves in order to shed and peel away. And one of the most important ones, I believe, is to validate and reclaim all of our ways of knowing and all of our human capacities. You know, I think we’ve all grown up in a culture that categorizes films about relationship as chick flicks, you know, and things that are emotional as being for women only. And actually, my sense is that there is so much unexpressed grief, and anger and despair in the world right now. That if we could create a national week for despair and grieving and safe places to express rage, we could diminish the amount of violence in the world very dramatically.

Achim Nowak  19:39

You expressed it so beautifully in a whole part of the show, and I believe thank you for putting it that way. A word from your sponsor. That’s me. I invite you to go to the website associated with this podcast Fourth You will find a They’re equally inspiring conversation with great humans. And you will also learn more about the my fourth act mastermind groups where cool people figure out how to chart their own fourth acts. Please check it out. And now back to the conversation. think one way of being that I have a sense is important for you because you’re right about it in your public statements about yourself is being a facilitator and what it means to be a facilitator. And I know that means different things are different people. So for you, mean assignments? What does it mean for you to be a facilitator and what is it that you facilitate?

Nina Simons  20:47

Well, I think it’s such a good question. I mean, thank you for asking me that because I think my definition may vary from others. I learned a long time ago from the godmother of biomimicry, a woman named Janine Benyus, that what life does is to create the conditions conducive to life. And there was a time about 10 years ago, maybe where I took a year long training called The Art of change. And it was expressly for people whose life purposes was to create the conditions for transformative change to be possible. As I enter my fourth act, I’m aware of sort of claiming a gift that I have cultivated over time of convening, and some of its been through Bioneers, where we convene 1000s of people, and some of its been through small group convenings of 10 to 20 people. But I believe as a facilitator, that my role is to co create the conditions where transformative change is most are most possible changes are most possible for all of those who are attending. And for the, the organism of the group as a whole. I think one of the things I learned in my years of facilitating retreats is that I think people have a tremendous capacity to accelerate each other’s learning, creating the conditions for that feels like a very sacred calling to me.

Achim Nowak  22:32

eautiful now you and I are two human beings in the mid 60s, were both accomplished. And I just want to use myself as an example to put a question on the table. So part of what happens, I’m often asked to do things that I’m really good at, but don’t really feel like doing anymore. I’ve done them for a long time, and people rightfully approached me to do it. But doing that dance around, why I commit to something? Why do I say yes or no to something? I don’t have an easy formula or recipe, I would imagine you’re constantly being asked to do things that you would love to do, maybe don’t have time to do? How do you navigate that for yourself?

Nina Simons  23:22

Well, I feel like you have just peered inside my psyche to ask me that question. Him because it’s very much what I’m currently deeply engaged in myself. And I feel as though I have embarked on a deep excavation process, to explore the roots of a behavior that I have become habituated to, which is responding to other people’s needs, when I’m asked, and when I have the capacity to be helpful or supportive. And, and what I’ve been finding is that there was a time in my early adolescence, actually, a long time ago, aged 13 to 15, where my family was going through a lot of turbulence. And my best friend from that time recently reflected to me that she remembers thinking, I’m glad I’m not Nina, because you have so many people you’re taking care of. And I remember thinking at the time, like I better act like the grown up here because no one else is doing it. And I’m really looking at that and how that helped set a pattern in me, which I think is a pattern that many of us in leadership have experienced, you know, where as you said, if you’re good at something, and if you you know, and for me, I feel as though I’ve been in fifth gear for most of my adult life, and I’ve had a very strong drive to contribute in every way I can to healing and alleviating suffering and helping make change. And now, what I notice is that I need to do the inner work, so that I can have more spaciousness within my inner self. Because that’s what allows me to take the time and the discernment. And the self worth, honestly, to be able to say, I’m sorry, I’d love to help with this, but I can’t, you know, and, and it does feel like a next level of exercising both my own inner authority and a kind of self love that allows me to say, I don’t have to keep proving myself by saying yes to everything anymore.

Achim Nowak  25:57

Every little thing you said, I have experienced in my own journey. So it sounds to me what you said. How do you at the deepest level, distinguish between other narratives for you and your narrative for you? Because sometimes that distinction, I think, is not easy.

Nina Simons  26:23

That doesn’t seem very challenging to me, I think, because I lived based on other people’s narratives, for much of the first two thirds of my life. And really, over the last 20 years, I have had a strong intention and focus on being true to my own calling, and to my inner guidance. And also, you know, of course, there’s that saying that we teach what we most need to learn. And so as I’ve taught women leadership, I have felt increasingly compelled to be more congruent, and how I walk my talk, and how I model what it is I’m teaching. And honestly, I feel as though a lot of my work has been about learning to lead from the heart rather than purely from the head. And so if I really listen to my hearts guidance, I think practicing relational mindfulness has been incredibly helpful for me. It’s a meditation practice that I love, and that centers me. And that helps me Listen, in many more ways than my ears. I think all those things and my own commitment to just I think after 40, what I realized to him was that I wanted to die, knowing that I had lived as true to my soul’s calling, as true to whatever I was meant to bring to this earth at this time in this life, as I knew how. And that gives me a certain courage and helps give me guardrails to not do what’s not important anymore. Which is not to say that I’ve perfected it, by the way.

Achim Nowak  28:26

I want to share with you a little anecdote of somebody wonderful, who I have interviewed last year again, woman in her 50s, very accomplished from a different part of the world. And we came to this point in a conversation where so what are some things that you would, or the things you’ve never done things you’d like to differently to do more of less of? And she echoed what we just said, which is basically saying is a take on too much responsibility and want to do less of it. And then she gave me a surprising, delightful answer. She said, I want to have more fun. I want to have more sexual partners. I want to be freer, and I want to explore more. And that was a wonderfully courageous answer. And I appreciated her just counting the desire to have fun. I’m not suggesting that has to be your desire or mine. But are there any desires where you go if you go get honest with yourself, and so today, we have desires that don’t match. Our more aspirational self are how are we sure, go? Sure. Gosh, I would really like to do more of this or like to explore that. I always wanted to do this, but it just didn’t seem to make sense.

Nina Simons  29:41

Yeah, yeah. I love to dance. And I would like to dance more. I would like to sing more. I would like to feel courageous enough about my singing voice to sing more often and freer with it. I’d like to make art For. And I’d like to have adventures in travel more. Because much of my travel has been for work purposes, and I have a hunger to see different parts of the world and to play more. I think it’s true. You know, I mean, I think in many ways, my life has been incredibly blessed. And I’m so grateful for it. And I also feel just incredibly grateful to have a life partner who I adore, and feel utterly attracted to and am best friends with and love having a life mission that, you know, we crack each other up continually and spark each other and finish each other’s sentences. And that’s like a huge gift, too.

Achim Nowak  30:46

So this is a wonderful thing to perhaps end up on. Because I’m very curious. I was thinking about this before you said, which is, how have you evolved as a partner in your relationship with Kenny? And how has he evolved in his relationship with you?

Nina Simons  31:06

Well, you know, I once had a therapist who taught me a wonderful phrase, she was more of a guide, really. And she said, Whenever we’re drawn to someone deeply in our lives, it’s because of a principle that she called balanced mating. And she said, It’s because we see something in that other person that we know we want to grow in ourselves. And so the first answer that I would offer a heme is to say that, wow, over the course of our relationship, I have changed so much. And I’ve stopped competing with him, I’ve stopped being threatened by His power. Because he was older than me, there was a long time where I did all that. And I think as I’ve grown into my own authority, I’ve stopped doing that gratefully. And so we’re now able to have a much more joyful, playful co equal partnership. But the other thing is, we’ve become more like each other, you know, I’ve learned from him how to be more meticulous and conscientious about my timelines, and my writing practice and my care and how I do things. And I think he’s become kinder and more relational and a better listener, you know, a lot of lot of ways, and it’s delightful to witness over time. It’s one of the great gifts of a long term relationship when it works.

Achim Nowak  32:36

I’m so happy for both of you. Thank you would imagine our listeners are curious about where they can learn more about you about Bioneers about your writing. I want to invite you to shamelessly let them know where where would you like to direct them?

Nina Simons  32:57

Well, thank you. Bioneers is wondrous. And so if you go to the website, it is And if you’d like a free download of the introduction of my book, you can go to book. And Bioneers is also having a face to face conference in Berkeley in April. And so check that out. I have a website that’s Nina Simon’s dot com. And my books are both available at anywhere that books are sold. And, and my latest book and the latest edition of it, which has a lot of great prompts and facilitation information is also available on ebook or audiobook. So all of those places you can find me and you can find [email protected] and thanks for that.

Achim Nowak  34:01

Listeners, many invitations. And thank you, Nina for the gift of this conversation. I so enjoyed it.

Nina Simons  34:08

Oh me too. I came it’s beautiful what you do. Thanks so much.

Achim Nowak  34:13

Bye for now, by like what you heard, please go to my fourth And subscribe to receive my updates on upcoming episodes. Please also subscribe to us on the platform of your choice. Rate us give us a review and let us all create some magical fourth acts together. Ciao


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