April 18, 2012

Reflection on Event with Betsy Myers: Take the Lead

On April 10th, I attended a Sloan Women in Management (SWIM) talk by Betsy Myers. Widely recognized as an expert in the area of women’s leadership and development, Betsy formerly served on the Clinton Administration as the senior advisor on women’s issues and was the COO of the Obama campaign. Most recently, she wrote a book (which I picked up and haven’t been able to put down since) called Take the Lead.

I’ve attended many leadership talks, but Betsy’s had an air of honesty and realism that resonated with me and with others in the audience, which consisted of students and professionals from the Boston area. She spoke at length about the changing face of leadership: it’s becoming more about the people in a system, collectively moving the work forward, than it is about a top-down leader. Betsy shared three key lessons that can help us adopt this new, more collaborative leadership style.

  • Leadership is self-knowledge. “Forget the glass ceiling – what about the sticky floor that’s holding us down?” she asked. She emphasized that without understanding which behaviors are getting in the way of our success, we’ll have trouble figuring out the “pearl we’ll add to the world.”
  • Leadership is the “willingness to ask questions and the generosity to share the answers.” The most successful leaders ask many questions and really listen to the answers.
  • Leadership generates emotions. People contribute when they feel valued, supported and loved, and organizations are most successful when they can build a culture in which their people feel that way.

Betsy illustrated her lessons with colorful and touching anecdotes about people she had met during talks, during book promotions, and during her travels. I was particularly struck by her story about a doctor she met at a cancer research hospital in Texas. The doctor, an African-American woman, loved her work at the hospital – but she also loved her Afro, a strong symbol of her identity. Because of the social and professional norms at the hospital, she knew she couldn’t be as successful as she wished while keeping her hair. So she cut it. Not because she had no other choice but to cut it, but because she actively chose to cut it: she recognized that the environment around her was constrained, and she worked within the constraints to continue making a difference in the way she most loved: as the most successful doctor she could be. Yes, she had to trade something for that success, but with that choice she felt her power and her autonomy.

I was struck by the message of personal responsibility Betsy conveyed with this story. The onus is on each of us to learn how to operate within our constrained world. Not to sit back and wait for the constraints to change, but rather to learn how to succeed within the constraints and work on removing them, so that the next generation of people – not only women – can be a little bit freer. A leader is someone who can work with what they’ve been given, who can take the resources that are available and use them to build a better solution, to move the world forward. As Betsy said, “Bloom where you’re planted!” If the lessons she shared in her talk were any indication, that’s exactly what Betsy is up to.

Article by Pooja Wagh
MPP Candidate 2012 | Harvard Kennedy School

Photos taken by Jenya Shandina, Tufts Fletcher School