Posted by Suzanne Toma
Recently, as part of my research on women as emerging global leaders, I had the opportunity to meet with one of Hillary Clinton’s former campaign strategists. After some preliminary small talk on the 2016 presidential campaign, I zeroed in on the topic that intrigued me most: Hillary's impact on the women's leadership movement.
In the 1990s, the pioneering work of Nancy Adler put forward a theory of women's leadership as a progressive and dramatically different orientation to the world. As early as 1997, in her piece "Global Leadership: Women Leaders," Adler wrote that women, like Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher, and Mary Robinson, offer the world a lesson "in treating each other and our planet in a more civilized way in the 21st century than we have in the twentieth century." Needless to say that is a perfect articulation of the movement, but in 2014, we have yet to understand the American woman who exemplifies the term 'women’s global leadership.' She has emerged as the leading female politician of the 21st century. So I asked, "What would Hillary say about women as emerging global leaders?"
The former Clinton aide paused momentarily and replied: “Hillary would be very direct with you. Hilary has said, over and over, do not be afraid to compete. From the start, Hillary has told women to be ready to sit at the table, well before it was the concept of a best-selling book.“ To paraphrase, the former Secretary of State has always been a proponent of women's leadership. She has emphasized that women must never shy away from proposing innovative solutions to social problems because they’re afraid of criticism. She has been the first to advise women to “take criticism seriously, but not personally.”
This was all true. However, I left our meeting feeling that as Coptic woman born in Egypt and schooled in the U.S., I perceived something more about Hillary: something bold, brilliant, and yet intangible (that “muchness” quality Lewis Caroll famously referred to). For the first time since meeting the Egyptian novelist Nawal el Sadaawi almost 15 years ago, I nearly gave up on traditional prose to capture the essence of the person. But it occurred to me even then, as a university student, that the defining characteristic of woman leading a company, a movement, a campaign etc. is that she is always on the precipice of making a choice. Often interrogated on her right to lead, she must decide whether to fall back or to continue forward. In choosing the latter, she audaciously answers the question, “Who do you think you are?”
Finally, the archetype of women's global leadership crystallized. The professional lives of women like Hillary, Benazir, Margaret, and Mary represent the actualization of that dramatically different orientation to the world. For IMPACT's members, it is a leadership orientation that emphasizes the adoption of six key principles: Innovation, Multiculturalism, Passion, Attunement, Collaboration, and Tenacity; we believe the integration of these principles are critical to success, to surviving the journey when it is stressful and to developing both the discipline of professionalism and the practice of exceptionalism.
Lastly, I realized something more about Hillary Clinton's impact on the women's leadership movement: over the years, the political dramas surrounding her were significant only in that they deepened my trust in the character of a woman repeatedly tested by every kind of public criticism and personal betrayal. Yet if I spoke with Hillary, I imagine she’d tell me it just comes with the territory. Perhaps it does, but there’s an old adage: threads that are golden don’t easily break. In my next piece, I”ll be interviewing IMPACT Leadership 21’s mentors who will describe their own experiences of leadership. Stay tuned.