In June I had the opportunity to present at the annual SHRM conference in Chicago. One of the highlights of that experience was being in the audience for the opening keynote delivered by former US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Ms. Clinton was recently named number 5 on Forbes 100 most powerful women list. The magazine selects women who “go beyond the traditional taxonomy of the power elite (political and economic might). These change-agents are actually shifting our very idea of clout and authority and, in the process, transforming the world in fresh and exhilarating ways.”
Ms. Clinton clearly illustrated this notion in her keynote by sharing five key leadership lessons illustrated with stories from her time as Secretary of State from 2009 to February 2013.
“Good decisions are based on evidence and not ideology.”
Ms. Clinton chose the issue of gender equality to illustrate this principle. Many countries, including the US, are jeopardizing both economic growth and productivity because of customs and/or practices that keep women from fully participating at work. Beyond being “just the right thing to do” educating women and girls has been shown empirically to be an economic driver. Using the US to emphasize the relevance of the issue, Ms. Clinton stated that domestic GDP would increase by an estimated 9 % if all the barriers to women in the US were removed.
“Leadership is a team sport.”
One’s success as a leader is measured by “how well you can get people to work together.” Ms. Clinton said that numerous individuals asked her how she could accept the position of Secretary of State working with President Barack Obama when they had been rivals for the leadership of the Democratic party. She stated that both she and President Obama were interested in “putting the common good ahead of our personal competition.” That shared interest allowed them to go from “a team of rivals to an unrivaled team.”
“You can’t win if you don’t show up.”
Ms. Clinton quoted filmmaker and actor Wood Allen who once said “80% of life is showing up.” It was this concept that motivated her to visit 112 countries during her tenure as Secretary of State. One of these was the West African country of Togo. Her reason for going was to build relationships, something else Ms. Clinton cited as critical for leaders. While she often faced challenges, she continued to “show up”, focusing on being welcoming, listening (another critical leadership skill) and gathering “clues” that would assist her in developing relationships in spite of the myriad of difference she encountered, in Togo and elsewhere. “It is not always easy but you do have to show up.”
“A whisper can be louder than a shout.”
Resolving concerns and conflicts often requires what Ms. Clinton referred to as “quiet diplomacy.” She shared a story of being in Saudi Arabia and learning about an 8 year old girl who was being forced to marry a 50 year old man for monetary reasons. As was customary when Ms. Clinton was travelling, there was a lot of American and European press around who were quick to pick up the story. Rather than use the press to pressure those in positions of power to take action, Ms. Clinton focused on finding a way to fix the situation and still allow public officials to “save face.” She chose to have a number of “quiet conversations” where her message was “please fix this and we won’t say anything publicly.” The real success in such a situation, stated Ms. Clinton, is to find a way to resolve the situation or conflict while working to enhance or build relationships. “Public humiliation is not the way.”
“Follow and pay attention to the trend lines, not the headlines.”
Ms. Clinton talked about American values being the key to what makes the US the country that it is and stressed the importance of keeping those values top of mind, and using them to guide behaviour in daily life. At the same time it is important to remain open and respectful, rather than judgmental with those that might not share those values. She talked about the challenge of building a relationship with the President of a country where violence against women was commonplace and widely accepted as reasonable. In one public conversation this individual told her that if a man comes home and his dinner is not on the table, then he has the right to beat his wife. Needless to say this is not a perspective that aligns with Ms. Clinton or North American values. Ms. Clinton worked by developing relationships with women’s groups and other officials in positions of power to encourage a shift in those attitudes. It was both gratifying and inspirational to hear her share how she was able to do so, and witnessed the passage of a bill that prohibited violence against women when a new administration was elected. It was “4 years of hard work to strengthen the relationship; getting them to see our point of view, and learning more about theirs.”
While Ms. Clinton never mentioned the word respect, the leadership behaviours she described; listening, building relationships, focusing on the shared good, being curious and interested in the perspective of others, including those with whom we might have major cultural and philosophical differences are all characteristics of respectful, values based leadership.
I look forward to the day when Ms. Clinton’s leadership style becomes the norm, rather than the exception.
What about you?