Inventing themselves on the job
Q: With Laura Bush in the news with her new memoir and Michelle Obama pushing her plan to fight childhood obesity, what advice would you offer to those who find themselves in such ambiguously defined leadership roles? Can a First Lady be a leader in her own right?
Some questions answer themselves by being asked. First ladies do lead, in myriad ways, and have throughout our nation's history. While America's First Ladies have the glare of the global spotlight focused on them during their husband's term, and often serve as role models for women the world over, the designation remains an unofficial title, one without a clearly defined role. It's what they do with the job that's important.
Whether we're considering the rigor, wisdom and moral seriousness in Martha Adams's correspondence to her husband; Eleanor Roosevelt becoming a delegate to the UN General Assembly and "First Lady of the World"; Betty Ford raising our country's awareness about breast cancer and the perils of alcohol and drug addiction; Hillary Rodham Clinton becoming first a U.S. Senator, then a candidate for president, and now Secretary of State; Laura Bush's efforts to promote nationwide literacy; and, Michelle Obama's current initiative to fight childhood obesity; America's first ladies have typically harnessed the attention and access that come with the role to pursue initiatives and carve out important leadership roles for themselves.
Each First Lady brings to the role her unique attributes and there is a measure of self-invention that is required to make the role one's own. Akin to a developer's new business plan or an inventor's fresh discovery, the role's very lack of definition provides opportunities for First Ladies to make their own mandate. In this respect, the work First Ladies do defining their sense of mission is analogous to any entrepreneurial spark.
That spark gets you nowhere without the personal passion to keep it going. That's one of the primary lessons I learned when I worked as press secretary for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and I've seen it applied time and time again in the business world.
First Ladies are afforded the opportunity to wed the causes to which they are most deeply committed to a national pulpit; in the private sector, things only happen when people are passionate about what they do every day.
Ambiguity creates opportunity. Things are always more challenging when there's no roadmap, but some of the best, most inspired thinking is likely to emerge from those situations. Honoring one's passion and embracing uncertainty are hallmarks of good leadership.
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