The Ascent of a Woman: Lessons I've Learned from Hillary

November 23, 2008

               It won’t be official until after Thanksgiving, but here in the U.S. we all know it's a done deal.  Senator Hillary Clinton is about to become the United States Secretary of State for the Obama Administration. 

               Initially, I didn’t believe the rumors.   Then, I wondered if Clinton accepting a Cabinet position would mean loss of the independent voice of one of the most respected women political leaders in the world.  But apparently Hillary believes she will be able to make a more significant contribution at the State Department than as a relatively junior U.S. Senator. That's good enough for me.  

                The continued ascent of one of the most remarkable women leaders of our times got me thinking down two separate tracks.  First,  I was reminded of the seemingly endless stream of gender-based criticisms and undermining comments that Clinton has endured over the years.  It reached a fever pitch with political pundits during her presidential campaign.  One of the worst offenders was Hardball host Chris Matthews who opined during the Democratic primary:  “Let’s face it, the only reason Hillary Clinton is running for president and the only reason she became a U.S. Senator is because her husband messed around.”  

                  If that’s the case, Chris, what’s the reason Obama is about to entrust her with one of the most challenging diplomatic jobs in the world?  

                Hillary Rodham Clinton has earned her place in history, but she is far from done writing her legacy.  I continue to learn lessons about the evolution of leaders from watching her.  Here are a few of my favorites:  

·         How to Take the Heat:  I can’t think of a leader who has endured and overcome more personal attacks –unrelated to her positions on issues and policies -- about her gender, her clothing, her cleavage, her marriage, her tears than Clinton.   She has a great response, telling reporters, “The saying goes, ‘if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.'  Well, I’m very comfortable in the kitchen.” 


·         How to Be a Team Player:  How painful do you think it was for Clinton to lick her wounds and pick herself up after her loss to Senator Obama in the Democratic primary?  It didn't take her long to swallow her pride, get back on the campaign trail and give anyone who was watching  a great lesson in how to be both a fierce competitor and a team player.  And knowing when to change gears.


·         How to Find Your Voice:  Remember during the New Hampshire primary when showed some emotion while speaking to a small group of women voters?  It set off a 24 hour news cycle on whether or not Senator Clinton was “tough enough” to be president.  When she won the primary, she told her supporters, “I come here tonight with a very, very full heart, and I want especially to thank New Hampshire. Over the last week, I listened to you and in the process I found my own voice."  That defining moment for Clinton reminded me of how long it takes for leaders, who aspire to truly make a difference, to develop and begin to effectively use their authentic voices.

My second train of thought has to do with Barack Obama.  The selection for such a critical appointment of one of his fiercest rival during the campaign tells me a lot about the kind of leader our president-elect will be.  He has frequently mentioned his admiration for President Abraham Lincoln, calling him “a very wise man.”  In the days after the election, Obama was re-reading Lincoln’s writings.

           No doubt he was searching for the insight behind one of our greatest president's decision to assemble “a team of rivals” for his Cabinet.   Because that is exactly what Obama seems to be doing.  A leader who is confident and intellectually curious enough to surround himself, not just with “the best and the brightest,” but also with strong, diverse, independent voices, is a leader who welcomes constructive conflict and gives me great hope for our future.


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