Visionary Leadership (Part I): Blooming Where You Are Planted

Visionary Leadership (Part I): Blooming Where You Are Planted

About a month ago, I was asked to give a lecture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to a gathering of women student leaders. I used the opportunity to urge the students to learn from women leaders who came before them. I also explained my guiding principle of “blooming where you are planted.” In honor of International Women’s History Month, which has been observed every March since 1987, the National Health Law Program has adapted my speech into a blog series.


First, I asked the students what they knew about eight women who inspire me. I offer you the same challenge. If you don’t know much about the women pictured below, look them up. Their visions launched, empowered, and influenced movements for societal change, all for better.

Four part banner with pictures and names of four women: Sojourner Truth, Malala Yousafzai, Dolores Huerta, and Eleanor Roosevelt

There was no particular method to my list and there are many more interesting women who could be added. Create your own list and use the women and their stories as models. Try to add women leaders you didn’t know, whose life experiences or background might be different than yours to your list. It is an inspiring and valuable exercise.

Four part banner with pictures and names of four women: Pauli Murray, Margaret Marshall, Margaret Sanger, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Some of the women on my list were in positions of authority but most were not. They exercised leadership by the sheer force of their vision and commitment. Many of them were leaders in opening opportunities for women and men to participate fully in their societies, to learn, to be treated fairly, to obtain and exercise authority. They embody one of my basic principles: bloom where you are planted. What I mean by that is that you do not have to wait until you believe you are perfectly positioned to make a difference. Look at where you are and what capacity you have to effect change and go for it.

Blooming Where You are Planted:

When I was in my 20s, I wanted to do something meaningful with my life, but I could not decide whether I could do that better as a priest or as a lawyer. I grew tired of trying to choose, so I went to law school and hoped it was the right decision. That has worked out fine, but it probably would have worked out fine if I had become a priest. Either way, I have tried to hold to my goals – doing something I believe in and blooming where I am planted.

I became a public defender after law school because I believe our criminal justice system only works when there are solid resources on both sides of the courtroom. It is not hard to see that there are tons of resources on the prosecution side, so the need is for really smart, strong lawyers working on behalf of people charged with crimes who do not have the resources to pay for a lawyer. Hearing my clients’ stories – the challenges they faced that led them to the cellblock where I met them – I understood that, in most cases, prison accomplished nothing, but did waste life and potential. I fought to keep my clients out of prison. I worked for criminal justice reform – especially doing away with mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes. Our prisons are filled with people for whom incarceration serves no legitimate goal, and keeping them there destroys innumerable individuals, families and communities along the way.

There were a number of years in between my public defender days and now. I became a mother of three boys. I worked in a law firm; I tried to do some good from that perch. I worked in the Obama Justice Department, where I learned much about our country’s health care system as we defended the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in court. I also discovered a great deal about leading people and getting buy-in from large groups of people with strong ideas. Then, by great luck, I became the executive director of the National Health Law Program. I now have some authority and a public platform that provides me the opportunity to share our vision of health equity with a broader audience. I am loving blooming where I am currently planted.


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