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April 23, 2012

What I learned about Leadership from my Mom - Oh, and Dr. Condoleezza Rice, The President of Liberia, and a Nicaraguan Microfinance Loan Officer

Seventeen year old Darcy Deane and her mother, amputee Olympian and former White House official, Bonnie St. John, co-authored the new book, HOW GREAT WOMEN LEAD, from Hachette Publishing.

I think it was somewhere in the hills of Nicaragua, as my mother was rubbing my back after I barfed my breakfast all over the Central American landscape, that I realized my Mom is a true leader.  No matter what happens, no matter what life throws at her, she gets through it and inspires others to follow along with her.  She had her leg amputated when she was 5 years-old, and went on to become the first African-American to win Olympic medals in ski racing, graduated with honors from Harvard, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and worked in the White House on the National Economic Council.  Talk about your over-achiever!  But Mom’s essence, her spirit, is what is truly amazing about her. She has a sense of peace that never ceases to amaze me.  There didn’t seem to be anything, or anyone, that could get me back in that van for the rest of the trip --- but Mom leaned over, looked into my bloodshot eyes and said, “C’mon, Darcy, you can do this.”

I could, and I did.  That’s the power of my mother.

We were in Nicaragua to interview another amazing woman, Noemi Ocana, for the book Mom and I were writing, HOW GREAT WOMEN LEAD.  Noemi oversees microfinance loans for small businesses through a wonderful organization called Opportunity International (  I could see she had the same kind of strength as my Mom.  Noemi, a single mother, lost her government job and had to resort to selling fish on the street to support her family. In 1998, she received a loan from Opportunity that helped her grow her small business. Gradually, through a series of loans, she worked her way up to a better life. Now she works as the head of the regional office for Opportunity overseeing 17 local loan officers who support and empower over 1,200 women working to support their families.  And she does it all with a smooth, quiet calm that you can just wallow in for hours.

When we first embarked on this project,I had a lot of stereotypes about leadership. When I thought “leader,” the image that popped into my mind was Lucy bossing around poor old Charlie Brown. Whenever I was put in charge of a group at school, I saw Lucy poking her finger at Charlie shouting something --- so I started talking really, really loud and pointing at people. That was my frame of reference. That was exactly what I expected these women leaders to do, too.

I was completely wrong.

When I met leaders like Noemi, I thought,‘Wait a minute… where’s the pointing? Where’s the shouting? Where did Lucy go?’  Noemi didn’t even look like the leader of the group.  She looked exactly like the rest of the women. So what was she doing? And why did it work?

Noemi is such an effective leader because she teaches with her actions, not her words. And she does it with a love and affection for everyone in her groups that her energy contagious.  She leads quietly and subtly, by example. A leader doesn’t evenhave to speak to set standards for her followers. A leader doesn’t have to be loud to be heard.  I was beginning to think Lucy had it all wrong.

Each visit on our journey became the celebration of a woman: her obstacles, her triumphs, her visions, her fears, her joys, her whole personality --- good, bad, everything. I found exactly as many leadership styles as the number of women we interviewed, each one beautiful, elegant, sacred, and full of lessons to be learned.

I can now see more clearly than ever before how these women are changing their communities and the world through their leadership.  It’s incredible.  But I still didn’t see myself ever becoming like them.  I don’t want to become the first femalePresident of a country like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, or become a world famous orchestra conductor like Marin Alsop.  I want to study linguistic anthropology.  ‘What does that have to do with leadership?’ I thought.

Then, suddenly, like a stroke of lightening --- really, I felt it in my toes --- the answer came in the middle of an interview with a really unlikely person:  Dr Condoleezza Rice.  I never in the world imagined I’d have anything in common with George W. Bush’s Secretary of State!   But, it turns out I did.

One question we asked almost all the women is:  ‘What do you think the leader of the future looks like?’  Dr. Rice pointed out that until recently it has been possible to travel among the leaders of almost every nation and communicate only in English.  But because today nations have become so interdependent, it is now crucial for leaders to speak other languages and to better understand foreign cultures. The leader of the future must excel at understanding languages and cultures more than ever before. According to Dr. Rice, the leader of the future looks exactly like my vision of who I want to be.

Finally, everything made sense. It’s not just me --- each woman, and in fact, every person, already has the passions and talents they need to become an incredible leader.  A leader doesn’t have to be like Lucy.  A leader doesn’t have to be like anyone.  We are so incredibly lucky to live in a time when things are moving so fast, changing almost constantly, that leading is really all about taking your passions and focusing those passions on the paths that are emerging all around you.  Just open your eyes --- you’ll see the possibilities.

What I learned was so simple, yet so powerful: the leader of the future doesn’t look like any of my preconceived notions.  A leader looks like anyone she wants to look like.  A leader looks like my Mom --- that short, smiling woman who takes the time to fix me breakfast in the morning before she goes out to inspire the world.  A leader even looks exactly… like me.