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.
Leadership is distinct from management and from authority, so let us begin with what the word leadership means. We all should be clear–eyed about the difference between leadership and being in a position of authority. Those who find themselves in positions of authority must determine how they will exercise that authority, whether they will also be leaders. This is perhaps particularly important for women to think about, as they continue to gain more opportunities to be in positions of authority.
Management is dotting I’s, crossing T’s, defining goals, creating budgets, and making sure that everyone is doing their part to meet collectively defined goals. It is important and nurtures relationships and teams. Without earnest and transparent management, organizations frequently crumble. But management is not the same as leadership.
Authority is often used interchangeably with leadership though it should not be. We identify the people in positions of authority in Congress and call them leaders – the majority or minority leader, the leader of this or that caucus. They may have a title of leader but too few are exercising leadership that is inspiring others to work together toward a vision for bettering our country and its diverse communities.
Leadership is having a vision and inspiring others to pursue that vision. Whether it was Dolly Parton or someone before her who said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader,” I think that’s a fine definition. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits,” when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December 1964.
Leadership is about change – it is about moving toward a goal or goals. The leadership we hope for inspires positive change—making something better, whether that something is home-grown and local or touches everyone on the planet. In either case, leaders cannot force others to pursue a vision. They have to inspire.
Neither management nor being in a position of authority, alone, would have achieved the progress that Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta did for poorly paid and abused Latino and Latina farmer workers in California. At one point, Latino farm workers told Chavez and Huerta that the white farm owners were too powerful for farm workers to realistically fight. Huerta responded “Si se puede!,” or “Yes we can!,” which became the rallying cry that united the farm workers and enabled them to force positive change to their unjust and inhumane working conditions. In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama used the English version for his campaign rallies. As president, Obama honored Huerta with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and gave her credit for his campaign rallying cry.
Though authority is not the same as leadership, being in a position of authority can be valuable if you want to effect change, because it means there are things under your control you can direct toward advancing a positive vision. Remember, however, that authority can be as easily abused as used wisely. Until recently, the people with authority to change things, at least in our country, have been mostly white men and they have badly botched things pretty badly. Positions of authority, however, are slowly changing, and hopefully for the better.
The 116th U.S. Congress includes an unprecedented number of women as members. One hundred won elections in November 2018, raising female representation to 102 in the House and 23 in the Senate. Never before have so many women been U.S. lawmakers, and the new 2018 group is young and diverse, including:
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who at 29 is the youngest-ever House member
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Somali refugee who landed in the US with her father 23 years ago— and back in January landed with him at the same airport, for her House swearing-in
Twenty-two black women were elected to Congress, nine Asian-American/Pacific Islander women, 12 Latinas, and 80 white women. In total there are 125 women in Congress, 17 more than the previous Congress.
Can these women do better than the many, many white men who preceded them? Will they use the skills progressive women have developed, largely not in positions of authority, which include our relationship-building, listening, and team building skills to build movements toward positive, progressive change?
Women are not immune from the challenges of exercising power or its overwhelming ability to corrupt, as examples in this country and others demonstrate. Still, I am hopeful we will be better off when more women leaders exercise authority in our country. U.S Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was once asked when she thought there would be enough women justices on the high court. She said, “When there are nine!”. But then, with characteristic grace, she expressed hope that, even with the current makeup of the Court, the justices could return to collaboration that used to be present among them. “Collaboration is just about listening to each other,” she explained. I call that leadership.