Read an Excerpt
How Great Women Lead A Mother-Daughter Adventure into the Lives of Women Shaping the World
By St. John, Bonnie
Center Street Copyright © 2012 St. John, Bonnie
All right reserved.
General comments / special considerations:
Special Fonts: Custom-B-hbg, daughter's voice font, must be set apart from the mother's voice, with a different type treatment and a line of leading separating the two.
Ornaments: Adobe Woodtype Ornaments (35) from cover used on title page and with chapter openers.
Special Extracts: Screenplay of Chapter 12 had very specific instructions to be laid out as shown, in Courier.
FOOTNOTE IN chapter 22...
You may want to look closely at whenever double quotes and single quotes are butted against each other, as I had a few problems with this.
numbered list within Custom-B (The president of liberia...
Screenplay EXT. Desert
Entire Chapter is in daughter's voice, titled "ECOM-A", no margins for the text
One Small Step for Womankind
I momentarily held the undivided attention of my teenage daughter. Her thumbs, free of their ubiquitous texting keypad, quietly dangled by her side. Her computer and its omnipresent Facebook page were completely out of sight. She was even devoid of those little earbuds that seemed to constantly deliver the latest bass-thumping popular melodies directly into her brain. I had almost forgotten what she looked like without all these adolescent accoutrements. As we sat down together on the burgundy leather sofa in our living room, I realized this fleeting state of electronic dislocation was my chance to hatch a plan I had been formulating for the past several weeks. Carpe diem.
“How would you like to write a book together?”
“About what?” I asked my mom. Write a book? This was a real surprise. I felt a bit suspicious, but still curious. I love to write, and Mom kept telling me I was really good at it. I like writing poetry, fantasy, and sci-fi, though. The books Mom wrote were all nonfiction. I wondered what we could possibly do together.
“Well…” I hesitated. If I wanted her to commit to any extra work outside her busy schedule at school—not to mention work alongside her mother—I had to make this really great. “It would be about women as leaders,” I continued, “a mother-daughter investigation into leadership styles and structures.”
“Leadership?” I blurted. It came out as if I had a bad taste in my mouth—which I did. I couldn’t imagine a more boring topic to write about. What is there to say about leadership anyway? When you’re in charge, you just get things done, right? Who wants to talk about that?
“We could interview CEOs, politicians like Hillary Clinton, military leaders, and other amazing women.”
The more I thought about this whole idea, the more I didn’t like it. I could tell my face showed how I felt.
Her furrowed brow told me I was losing her fast. “Um…we could find women leaders all around the world!” I said impulsively, frantically casting the ultimate bait.
“Really? Would we get to travel a lot?” I hadn’t thought about that. Heck, I’d write about the mating habits of tsetse flies if I got to go to Africa to do it!
Darcy has always been fascinated with countries and cultures outside her own. Since she was a little girl, she would, for her own entertainment, create entire civilizations from scratch. She designed their social structures and even generated fictional languages and alphabets for their communications. I hoped I was offering her a chance to explore her lifelong passions.
But this project wasn’t just about the influence it would have on Darcy. I wanted to do something that could have a potent impact on an alarming trend I had witnessed in workplaces across the country: far too many women appeared to be making a choice not to apply for top leadership positions when presented with the opportunities to do so.
Had the pendulum swung back from the newly liberated, ambitious, trailblazing women leaders of previous generations toward a more cautious view of leadership for their daughters in generations X, Y, and Z? Had their mothers paid such a high price for their achievements in terms of family life, harassment at work, and lack of recognition that many of their daughters were now ambivalent about aiming for the top and pushing wider the doors their mothers had opened?
At the same time, I still saw plenty of women who were willing to scale the heights no matter what the costs. But these “go-getters” faced a whole new set of frustrations and challenges their mothers wouldn’t have even imagined. They weren’t yet ready to throw in the towel, but they were pretty close to strangling somebody with it.
A number of books on the shelves today have made deep, scholarly investigations into these phenomena and drawn helpful intellectual conclusions. I wanted to do something different, something that would be more fun and more dedicated to showing how women today view themselves as leaders. I wanted to pull readers into the adventure of leadership. I wanted to strike at the heart—at the emotion of the quest. If I could somehow create a book that would help women of all ages and backgrounds to become more energized and, at the same time, better prepared to step up and take the lead in their communities, jobs, and homes, I knew our world would be better for it.
Ultimately, my daughter, too, would be entering the world of the workplace. By taking her on a tour to meet women who were successfully navigating their way around the rocks and hard places of leadership, perhaps we could create a call to action for her and for women everywhere to take their places at the highest levels of every sector in society.
This project, then, was a bit of a Trojan horse. On the one hand, the saga of a mother-daughter journey could seduce female readers, who might never bother to read the Harvard Business School dissertations on the subject, into a meaningful conversation about leadership. At the same time, if Darcy met a series of brilliant, accomplished women—people even a cynical teen would be in awe of—perhaps they could tell her all the things I’d like her to know—and more.
And she just might listen.
“Okay…” I told Mom. I was slowly gaining enthusiasm, but I was determined to keep this book from being a total snooze. “Do you want my opinion, though?”
“Well, if you just make the book about CEOs and famous politicians, most people won’t feel like the book is for them. We should also talk to some people who are less well-known—people anyone can relate to.”
Why didn’t I think of that? She was right. I was speechless as Darcy continued.
“What’s our budget for this project?” I asked my mother. This thing sounded insanely expensive. It’s not like we’re the kind of people who vacation in the south of France, you know? How could we afford a huge, global fiesta?
Huh? Budget? “Um…I don’t know yet.” I wondered where she was going with this. So, to stall and gather my thoughts, I invoked the universal parental procrastination position: “It depends.”
“It depends on what?” I countered. I wasn’t going to let her get away with an evasion like that. “How are we going to travel around the country, or the world for that matter, without a budget and a plan?” My mother does, from time to time, come up with wild ideas—like when she decided to become a one-legged international ski racer from San Diego. I’ve heard all the stories about her running out of money, breaking her legs, and living out in the middle of nowhere to train on a glacier in the summer. That’s so not me. She can also be a bit disorganized—just look at her desk. I really didn’t want to get involved in this enterprise unless I knew how it was going to work.
Who, exactly, was leading whom? Okay, I probably should have considered some more of the practical details of this endeavor prior to this discussion. For example, we were starting this project not long after the beginning of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. I certainly wasn’t in a position to name a generous sum of money for travel. “Darcy, we’ll make a budget and a plan after we get more information. I’m just trying to get an idea of your interest right now.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, still suspicious, but willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I figured, what the heck? Against all my organizational instincts, I would give it a chance. If it did somehow manage to work, it could be the greatest opportunity of my teenage life.
Looking back, this interchange should have been my first clue that this project was not going to be “mother, paragon of leadership and role model, teaches eager, knowledge-thirsty daughter.” No. This was going to be a true learning adventure…for both of us.
The best expeditions start with preparation and help from others. I’m fortunate to have a great group of people who’ve signed on to my website’s “stay in touch” list and routinely give me their input on a variety of topics. This gang is a smattering of friends and acquaintances to whom I regularly turn for intelligent discourse and advice, particularly when I’m embarking on a new book project. Darcy and I crafted an e-mail asking them to recommend women leaders to include in our travelogue. We requested they keep in mind that we wanted not just the obvious choices, but their own, personally near and dear heroes.
Within minutes my inbox was flooded with replies! Not just women, but my male friends, too, regaled us with strong opinions and compelling arguments for women leaders we should hold up as role models. Each e-mail had three, four, sometimes as many as ten names. We were off and running!
“Mom, these women are really cool,” I said, surprised after I Googled a couple of the names on the list. Wow…An Iraqi woman who suffered under Saddam Hussein and single-handedly created an organization of women to fight back against dictators around the world…That Buddhist nun who helped AIDS patients in Thailand. Since I play cello in the school orchestra, I thought it would be cool to meet the only woman in the United States who conducts a major orchestra. Then there was Facebook! Right next to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, there is a woman named Sheryl running the whole world my friends and I need to exist. Meeting her would be awesome!
After a few hours, we had over five hundred suggestions. It quickly became apparent that it would take days to weed through this material, so I sent out a brief “thank-you” e-mail letting people know we were poring through their ideas in earnest and would give them more feedback later. To my surprise, that follow-up note provoked yet another round of responses with hundreds more ideas! For weeks, people stopped me on the street, or after a speech, to say, “I meant to e-mail you back about your next book. You just have to include…”
We had really hit a nerve.
Over the next several weeks we delved excitedly into this extensive catalog of extraordinary human beings. Darcy organized the proposals into a spreadsheet to track diversity across age, nationality, ethnicity, field of expertise, and more. With so many legitimate nominations, it looked as if we could write several books. I had never before fully appreciated the depth and breadth with which women are shaping the world today—more than any time in recorded history. This exercise further strengthened our resolve to laud these amazing stories as examples of the incredible capabilities of women as leaders.
But where to start? How would we make it work? I suggested we do most of our research by phone, as I did for How Strong Women Pray. My telephone interviews with a governor, some CEOs, actors, sports figures, a college president, and others yielded great stories and information. I promised my intrepid co-author, though, that we could punctuate these conversations with a few visits in person to exciting and exotic places—all with reasonably priced airfares.
“You know, Mom, if we just interview a bunch of women over the phone and add a few side trips it will be a boring book,” I told her as I tried to stay calm. I wanted to meet these women in person, see them laugh, and get to know them. I wanted to meet Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook headquarters. I wanted to hear Marin Alsop’s orchestra play. “We need to make this into a story that will draw people in and make them want to read it,” I said as persuasively as I could. “These women are so great, everyone should get to know them and truly appreciate their lives.” I wasn’t just looking for a good time. I had become truly inspired by the women. Plus, this was my first chance to write a published book and I wanted to do it right.
Again, I acknowledged that my daughter was not only dead right, but also thinking way ahead of my curve. We discussed this notion off and on for about a week before we came to, what Darcy called, a “simple” solution:
“Why don’t we follow each subject as she goes about her daily life? That way our readers get to come along with us and get a behind-the-scenes look at what happens to them. Instead of just a boring interview, we—and our readers—get to hang around with these women, see them in their natural habitat, and even see how other people treat them.”
Although I agreed it was a wonderful approach, this idea of “job-shadowing” each featured subject didn’t seem simple to me at all. I just wasn’t sure it would work. The risks seemed huge. Would these high-powered, important women deign to allow us that kind of access? Would they be able to impart the kind of wisdom that would resonate with our readers and truly make a difference in their lives? And, I still had no idea where we would find the financial resources to pull it off. We looked at each other, both of us hooked on a crazy idea that we weren’t sure we could pull off.
“It sounds impossible, Darcy,” I said. “We might as well get started.”
And so, we stepped out…on faith.
Her Excellency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of Liberia, Nobel Laureate
From all the requests for interviews we sent out to our massive spreadsheet of extraordinary women, we secured our first agreement to participate from none other than the outspoken, controversial, twice jailed, and almost assassinated president of the West African republic of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. This incredible role model also happens to be the first elected female head of state on the continent of Africa and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
The bad news, though, as we took our first wobbly steps forward on our mother-daughter leadership venture, was that a pair of plane tickets to Liberia was never going to fit into the “reasonably priced airfare” disclaimer I made to Darcy. Europe? No problem. South America? Maybe. But even a couple of super-saver coach seats to Africa would have used up the entire book advance. So we settled for a phone interview rather than pass up the opportunity. It would be okay to interview one of our featured women via telephone; we just wouldn’t make it a habit.
From the moment we booked the appointment, Darcy was a bundle of energy. We both scoured anything published about President Johnson Sirleaf, as well as scads of literature on Liberia and its extraordinary history. We totally immersed ourselves in research about this extraordinary woman. We read her book, This Child Will Be Great, cover to cover. As we turned page after fascinating page, we scratched yellow highlights over all the exciting parts—which gave our copy roughly the appearance of a lemon meringue pie that was heavy on the lemon. To discover the rich details of President Johnson Sirleaf’s incredible history, from an abusive marriage straight out of high school to facing down firing squads as a politician, left us completely in awe. We even got some great insights into her life from our online gang of friends and colleagues. Finally, one warm summer afternoon, Darcy and I sat down together to make a list of the questions to ask.
“I really want to ask her: How do you respond to critics?” Darcy jumped right in. “I know I worry about being criticized when I am heading up a group. But maybe we should say: When do you believe your critics? or Do you ever take criticism to heart?”
Darcy’s hot pink gel pen instantly filled every line of the tablet in front of her as she wrote, crossed out, and rewrote as fast as she could talk. I tried to be patient with her obsessive wordsmithing, but after spending fifteen minutes on each of the first two questions, I had to say, “Don’t agonize so much about the exact wording or the order of the questions. The conversation will flow in its own direction. Try to stay attentive and listen to what she is saying. She could bring up an idea that makes you want to ask something we didn’t plan at all.” I was afraid we were losing focus on the big picture. As a veteran of this sort of interchange, and far more confident about how the call would go, I did my best to instill a sense of calm and confidence in my agitated daughter.
I took the tablet and wrote: How do we encourage more young women to be leaders despite the challenges?
“I think it should be ‘young women with doubts to take on leadership roles,’” Darcy insisted, pulling the paper back.
I couldn’t believe she felt she had to reword my questions, too! It was making me crazy.
I wanted everything about this first foray to be perfect. I could feel in the pit of my stomach how nervous I was. Maybe it would be easier on the phone than in person, I told myself. But I still wondered how all this was supposed to work. When you call the president of Liberia, does she just pick up the phone? It seemed crazy that we were going to talk to the head of an entire country.
Never having done this before, I focused all my energy on what I could understand and control: wording the questions to the best of my ability. I thought we should try to sound like we were polished experts and that wording the questions carefully would help with that. I made up our very first question list, neatly typed it, and organized it into categories. I finally felt prepared when I printed it out. It spanned three single-spaced pages starting with: How do you define leadership? and ending with: What do you find most rewarding about being the President of Liberia?
When the actual day arrived, I took the morning off from school so that Mom and I could make the call together from home. It felt a little like cheating to be out of school when I wasn’t sick, but this was really important. I began to feel the scope of what we were about to do—not just today, but with this whole project.
I was still worrying, too—especially about how we would record the interview. We’d purchased a pair of digital recorders (one primary and one for backup) to use at our in-person meetings, but they didn’t have a mechanism for jacking in to pick up both sides of a phone conversation.
“Don’t worry, honey,” Mom had told me with an easy smile. “We can use Old Reliable, the cassette tape recorder I used for the interviews in my last three books. It has a special plug that hooks directly into the phone line. It works great.” Smiling fondly, she patted the antique black plastic RadioShack box that had been her trusty companion through interviews with people like Edie Falco, Barbara Bush, and Amy Grant.
I stared at this clunky looking gadget. “Old Reliable” was ancient technology. Fatter and heavier than an iPad or even a notebook computer, it was at least ten times the size of our sleek, new digital recorders. Those cassette tapes inside it seemed so fragile—easily ruined by water damage or breakage. You can’t even upload them to a computer to back up the recordings! But Mom made one of those parental-authority rulings. She pushed aside “high tech” and stuck us with “good-bye tech.”
Those tiny little digital devices made me uncomfortable. Barely bigger than a cigarette lighter, they seemed so dainty and insubstantial. You can’t see where the interview is stored. I like to watch the wheels turn inside the tape player so I know the thing is actually recording. It feels good to pull the cassette out afterward, and label it to save for later. It’s something you can physically hold in your hand. You know you have the interview.
I got a little misty-eyed as I inserted four fresh D batteries into the plastic container on the back of my old pal, and connected the phone jack wire to her side. I peeled the plastic film off a brand-new cassette tape, labeled it carefully, and heard the satisfying click as I loaded it into the slot and closed the lid. I tested the recording. Twice. I smiled my most satisfactory smile. It worked beautifully—just like always.
“See?” I said to Darcy, “Just ’cause it doesn’t have any ‘apps’ or an LED display doesn’t make it a dinosaur. Now, are you ready to dial Liberia?”
I checked my notes and pens, and gave Mom an enthusiastic thumbs-up. I felt a bit shaky inside, but excited. This was our maiden voyage together, and I still wasn’t sure what to expect.
I winked to my daughter and dialed the impossibly long series of numbers it takes to access a foreign country. We had decided against using the speakerphone, so instead we sat next to each other, each of us holding her own handset. Simultaneously, we heard the familiar, yet still unusual, “blip-blip” ringing signal of an international telephone interchange.
“The number you have dialed is not in service. Please hang up and try again…”
My heart began to beat faster as I frantically double-checked the number. I dialed again, carefully examining each digit on the page.
“The number you have dialed is not in service. Please hang up and try again…”
Whoa! My heart skipped about a dozen beats. What the heck was going on? Mom was moving around way too fast, and I had no idea what was happening. Is this going to work? Is there something weird about the phone system in Liberia we don’t know about? Does this kind of stuff always happen?
I raced over to my computer and pulled up an e-mail from the president’s assistant. There was another phone number there at the bottom. I added the international access code and the country code to the number on the e-mail signature and slowly punched in the numbers. And prayed.
Blip-blip. Blip-blip. Blip-blip…click!
“Office of the President,” finally came the heavily accented answer.
“This is Bonnie St. John and Darcy Deane. We have an appointment to talk with President Johnson Sirleaf…?” My voice trailed up at the end, like it always does when I’m nervous.
“One moment please.”
Darcy looked at me in wide-eyed panic, jumped up from the table, and ran into her room! I thought, Oh, great. She’s overcome with stage fright and she’s losing it.
This deafening, reverberating echo was emitting from our phones. My handset was too close to Mom’s and the signal was feeding back. Suddenly the already questionable international connection became almost inaudible. I grabbed my notes and sprinted to my bedroom to put as much distance between our two phone units as possible. “I’m still here, Mom,” I said quietly so she wouldn’t think I had abandoned her.
“This is President Johnson Sirleaf.” Her elegant voice filled my ears.
“Hello, Madam President. This is Bonnie St. John, and I’m on the phone with my daughter, Darcy…”
I couldn’t believe the President of Liberia was actually on the other end of the line speaking to us! It was really happening. I knew Mom had done a lot of high-profile interviews, and I was completely relying on her to make this a success.
As I continued to greet the president, I quickly glanced toward Old Reliable. The tape wasn’t moving! Those little circles that go around and around, winding the cassette from spool to spool, were stubbornly still. How could this happen after all these years? Okay, so “all these years” is probably the operative phrase. A cold sweat gripped my entire body. My hands flew to the controls and, in the process, I knocked the recording relic right off the table!
I listened to Mom’s voice becoming increasingly shaky, distracted, and unsure, and I started to wonder what was wrong. Then I heard a crashing sound.
As the machine tumbled onto the floor, I mustered all my acting ability to pretend there was no problem. “…Um, thank you so much for taking this time to speak with us…”
I flung the bedroom door open and came pounding out into the living room. As I raced toward her, Mom lunged for the recorder and all her notes went flying in the air, adding a snowstorm of paper on top of the fractured old recorder. I was terrified.
So much for setting an example of professionalism for my daughter. The Three Stooges, on their worst day, were more composed than I was in this harmonic conversion of disasters.
As adrenaline coursed through my veins, I took stock of our situation:
- The President of Liberia was on the phone.
- Despite all the chaos, my mom was still talking to her.
- Nothing was recording the interview.
If I didn’t do something right now, we’d have to write all this from memory. That thought alone was my call to action. I grabbed one of the abandoned digital devices off of the table and turned it on immediately.
I’m still not sure how it happened, but, to my delight and relief, I saw Darcy had managed to get one of the digital recorders going. I quickly pressed the speakerphone button on my handset so that we could record both sides of our conversation. Not the greatest way to preserve the session, but desperate times called for desperate measures. I looked gratefully at my daughter, as if she had performed a miracle. Perhaps she had.
Though the bedlam had felt like an eternity, only about fifteen seconds had actually elapsed. As a bonus, with the digital recorder doing its job via speakerphone, Darcy and I were now able to sit together. The interview—and this entire project—had now officially begun. “The recorder is rolling and we’re ready to start,” I said triumphantly. “Madam President, how do you define leadership?”
After a long pause to choose just the right phrase, Her Excellency replied, “Someone who unites people to work towards a common goal. A leader is someone who creates collaboration.”
Her voice emanated from the tinny little speaker with a surprising softness that melted my stress and anxiety away. The serenity of her tone reminded me of the time I recorded (on Old Reliable) a dialogue with the legendary Maya Angelou. Both of these great women speak as though their throats are coated in a rich, silky cream; the essence of their thoughts slips smoothly and gently into your soul with such a warm resonance you feel as though they’ve infused your entire being with profound wisdom. I could listen to this lyrical, calm, yet impassioned voice for hours.
“How do you create collaboration with the enemies you have in your midst and their fierce opposition on a day-to-day basis?” I heard Darcy ask.
“In my government I have many of my harshest critics right beside me. I don’t have real enemies that remain enemies throughout my lifetime, only temporary political adversaries, perhaps. One has to be able to avoid spending time worrying about your enemies, and do the things that diminish them. Focus on your achievements for the greater good and you leave them less to say. You diminish them with your success.”
It is worth noting that when President Johnson Sirleaf came into power in 2006, her government opted to have a truth and reconciliation commission instead of a war crimes tribunal, following Nelson Mandela’s example in South Africa. Her commitment to heal past hatreds, extinguish the legacy of violence, and build cooperation for the future permeated her whole approach to governing and legislative decision making.
Mom pointed to another question, somewhere on the second page, that related to the subject of dealing with opposition. I swallowed my irritation with her for going out of the order we had originally devised because I knew she was my mentor as well as my mother. So I asked: “Many women are afraid to become leaders because they don’t know how to handle the criticisms that are so frequently aimed at those in charge. How do you decide which criticisms to take to heart and which to ignore?”
This was one of the questions I had crafted carefully because I worried about criticism as a leadership issue myself.
“It depends on what it is. Constructive criticisms are valuable when they point out my deficiencies and shortcomings. I examine them and decide whether I can improve. Criticisms based on falsehoods and accusations are annoying, but I dismiss them. It’s not worth dignifying them with my attention. Truth is the criteria for judging the value of criticism.”
I really agreed with her answer, but she didn’t acknowledge how criticism can be deeply impactful emotionally. I guessed her sense of having a cause made it worth the pain. While she didn’t actually say that, her life example definitely does. I went on to the next question.
“Do you think men and women lead differently?”
“Oh, yes,” she answered quickly, as though it were perfectly obvious. “Women bring to their responsibility and leadership a sensitivity that most men do not have; a certain passion, a certain commitment, a certain concern about the welfare of human beings. It may be in the genes or from the experience of being mothers.”
Madam President’s succinct answers were allowing us to get in a lot of questions in this brief allotment of time. Proud that Darcy had changed the direction of thought with surprising flexibility, I asked, “If you had a daughter, would you give her leadership advice that was different from what you would tell your sons?”
“Whether I was talking to sons or daughters, my advice would be the same.” Madam President’s voice became a bit sharper now. She took a breath and then spoke in her characteristically poetic way, pausing for emphasis:
Reach for your full potential.
Aspire for the biggest thing you can.
Get as much education as you can, and
Stay focused on your goal!
In each sonorous caesura, I heard the wisdom of a woman speaking across the decades to herself at age eighteen, married out of high school to an abusive husband and having babies as rapidly as humanly possible. By following the same advice she gave now, Madame Johnson Sirleaf changed the entire trajectory of her life when she could have easily lost hope as so many young girls do. These were words packed with meaning and motivation.
“What about women further along in their careers? What advice would you have for them?” I followed up.
As usual, she paused and then gave an eminently quotable answer.
“Have the courage of your convictions—no matter what the challenges are. And by all means,” she answered in her deep melodious voice, “choose your battlefields.”
In her world, this meant leaving the country—even leaving her children and family behind at times—to avoid being killed for sticking to her beliefs about the right thing to do. At other times, it meant staying put and going to jail to force the world and her fellow countrymen to see the truth.
Again, her words began to flow rhythmically:
Retreat to strengthen your resolve.
Pull back to recharge and address the situation.
Don’t destroy your goal by taking undue risks.
You can destroy everything you’ve worked for by risking too much.
After all the preparation we had done to learn about her Liberian history, the one question that I most wanted to ask was this: “How did you deal with your fears? How did you become so courageous?”
I got chills as she began to respond in a near whisper, her voice growing slowly in sound and intensity…
That first risk…
That first challenge…
That first responsibility.
That first experience in which fear is a factor—
You have to take that first step forward and rise above it.
After that, as you move on,
The fear diminishes.
You reach a place where you have complete freedom from fear.
What is the objective?
I’m willing to take the risk that gets me there.
Now it was time for Darcy and me to pause. So moving was her response, it was a moment or two before we could continue. This was a quote I knew I would share with every group of young women I had a chance to address about great women leaders.
Darcy finally asked, “Where do you find your strength in these grueling and dangerous situations?”
“I would direct you to the words of your President John F. Kennedy: ‘For this, each man must look into his own soul,’” she answered, and then continued, again in her own poetry:
After you’ve taken some risk,
And you’ve been able to meet the challenge and rise above it,
It strengthens your character,
It strengthens your resolve,
It enables you to be more determined.
One event, one experience,
Leads to another
And strengthens you to take on a bigger battle.
She moved into talking about her faith, “I grew up in a family of prayers. My mother was a Presbyterian teacher and preacher. In difficult times when man cannot help you, we always prayed. That’s part of my faith, part of my spiritual upbringing.”
Building on that faith idea, I asked another question I had specially prepared because it fascinated me. “In your book you describe how calm you became in some of the most dangerous situations. You never seemed to lose your temper, even when others were hostile and confrontational. I think a lot of women would want to know: ‘how do you manage your emotions?’ ”
“First of all, I am a very reserved, calm, and private person, even though I am good at campaigning and I can shout and speak at rallies with the best of them. In the most difficult circumstances, I go back to my faith, say a quiet prayer, and see it through.”
It surprised me a little to think of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as more introvert than extrovert. Could a reserved and private woman rule a country with enough authority?
I chimed in with my next question: “How do you hold people accountable for misconduct? It’s a challenge for every leader, but with the political dynamics in your context, quite a tricky task.”
“One has to demonstrate very clearly that there are consequences and be strict enough to make people accountable with penalties…yet you don’t want them to perform only because of fear. It is important to encourage and motivate people to do the right thing; you have to recognize their progress, congratulate them, and let them know you appreciate them. You have to balance both sides if you want to lead, and not rule.”
It was my turn again, and I asked a question for my generation. “There are so many challenges and hardships associated with leadership that young women often get discouraged from taking on leading roles, even though there are more opportunities than ever before. How do we encourage them to aim higher?”
“I hope your book will be an inspiration for young women to lead, when you tell the stories of so many women. I am just one. We need more role models, more life stories, so that young people believe you can rise from any level and achieve what you aspire to,” she said. “I was encouraged by Rosa Parks, Winnie Mandela, and many other women who came before me.”
I realized our time was running out, so I reluctantly skipped to the end of our very long list. It really hurt to jump over my carefully crafted questions, but I could see Mom’s point that the interview had developed a flow of its own. So, I sucked it up and asked what was designed to be our final question.
“You have worked so hard to be where you are today. What is the most rewarding thing about being the President of Liberia?”
“During my campaign I often said that one reason I was running for president was because I wanted to see the children of Liberia smile again. They have gone through such horror: running from guns, facing starvation, seeing their parents mutilated and killed. As I traveled the country during the campaign, I could clearly see signs of despair, the loss of hope. Too many children still did not know where their next meal was coming from. Too many still knew nothing about school.
“So my greatest reward as president is changing that situation for our country’s children and fulfilling the promises I made. My commitment is to get them decent food, decent housing, and decent education. To get them back into an environment in which they can feel themselves to be a real and vital part of a real and vital society. To create for the children of Liberia an environment in which they feel the future is bright.
“That’s why every sacrifice seems well worth the cost when I see children smiling with hope in their eyes, see them back in school, and know they have a future.”
We thanked her profusely and, reluctantly, said our good-byes.
As soon as we hung up, I looked with wide eyes at Darcy, pointed at the tiny technological wonder on the table, and nervously said, “Is the interview really in there?”
She pushed several buttons and replayed the first two questions. We had to strain to hear it, but it was there all right. We hugged each other with relief.
Once breath returned to my body, I asked Darcy, “Doesn’t Madam President inspire you to want to be a great leader?”
“Truthfully, Mom, it kind of scares me. Does being a leader mean risking death like she did? Even if not death, it just sounds like a really harsh and difficult life. Is that always the cost of leadership?”
That was definitely not the reaction I wanted or expected. While I internalized and embraced President Sirleaf’s profound advice to lead rather than rule, it seemed this brave woman had actually thrown a wet blanket on Darcy’s aspirations—rather than kindle them as I’d hoped. It never occurred to me that this experiment might backfire.
“I admire her—no question. She’s awesome,” Darcy replied, looking at my crestfallen face. “But that’s not the kind of life I want for myself.”
“Not all leaders risk life and death or struggle to create peace in war zones,” I said, hoping to get the train back on the track. “Just take the lessons you can from what she says. You’ll find ways to apply it in other contexts. Plus, we have lots of other leaders to meet in many other situations.”
It sounded a little lame, even to me, but it was the truth.
I was feeling somewhat deflated as we collected up our notes and began putting things away. Papers were still scattered everywhere, and my useless tape recorder sat accusingly in front of me. To regain my poise as a parent and author, I decided to turn this into a teachable moment.
“Well, Darcy,” I said, “the lesson here is that no matter how much practice you get, no matter how long you have been at this author game, you always have to be prepared for Murphy’s Inimitable Law to rear its ugly head. You did a great job, by the way, rolling with the punches. Thanks.”
“Actually, Mom,” I said, “in my opinion, the lesson for today is to embrace change. Like Madame Johnson Sirleaf said, ‘we can make the future better than the past.’”
I ceremoniously dropped Old Reliable with a heavy thud into the nearest trash can and wondered to myself, Why is it so hard for adults to learn how to use cool technology? Why do they hang on to old stuff that doesn’t work?
Don’t get me wrong—I admire my mom totally. I mean, she has accomplished all sorts of great things in her life. Besides, I could never have put this project, or even this interview, together myself. But having things go so wrong made me realize she’s not perfect, either.
I could see that from now on I really needed to be part of the team—not just along for the ride. And what’s best is, I was pretty happy about that.
Executive Director, Seeds of Peace
The Egyptians are coming, the Egyptians are coming!”
Far from the late-night ride of that infamous tinsmith heralding the arrival of red-coated oppressors, this New England call to action ripples through a remote enclave deep within the forests of Maine. Right on cue, a throng of teenaged campers and their counselors assemble around the main courtyard of their idyllic campground. Gradually, but deliberately, the peace and quiet of this bucolic setting is interrupted by a cacophony of joyous sounds that reverberate through the trees and seem to infuse the whole scene with energy and purpose. African drums, maracas, bongos—and almost anything else you can bang on to make a sound—blend with saxophones, guitars, horns, and fiddles into a glorious chorus of musical celebration. Even as observers, Darcy and I can’t help being swept up in the excitement. We grab some drumsticks from a small bin on the ground and add our own clicking and clacking to the beat of the fray.
A large yellow school bus appears on the horizon and ambles its way over the bumpy dirt road that defines the entrance to the camp. It draws closer to the clearing where we are gathered, and the sense of anticipation swells to the point of explosion. As the coach slowly jerks to a stop, the welcoming party swarms this mammoth vehicle. Arms raise higher, hands clap, bodies swirl in rhythm, and smiles seem to jump right off the faces of everyone involved. Finally, the long vertical doors snap open and fresh, new campers spill out—happily stunned by the magnitude of their reception. Cowbells, triangles, wood blocks, and tambourines are thrust into their hands, immediately enfolding them into the celebration. Nowhere is there any evidence of the weariness they must feel from their seven-thousand-mile journey around the world. To the contrary, they bound into the melee with enthusiastic delight.
Next come the Palestinians. And then the Israelis. And the Jordanians, Bosnians, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Afghans…each time the flames of music and dance flicker higher and higher as the burgeoning numbers of previous arrivals pass on the joy to the newbies.
This is Seeds of Peace. A summer camp unlike any other. For the past twenty years, Seeds of Peace has brought together over four thousand future leaders, ages fourteen to sixteen, from conflicting nations, particularly in the Middle East. For three weeks the teens partake in canoeing, campfires, and, most important, crushing barriers to foster peace and understanding between people who have been taught all their lives to hate each other.
In the rustic log cabins that dot the shoreline along the aptly named Pleasant Lake, you’ll find Bosnian Muslims bunking with Bosnian Serbs. No guns. No violence. You’ll see a teenage girl from India on a rock-climbing wall, suspended in the air while completely trusting a Pakistani boy to hold her safety line. Israelis, who previously knew only one phrase in Arabic, “Open the trunk and give me your ID,” sit and converse, side by side, with their Palestinian neighbors. It’s absolutely extraordinary to witness.
“This feels like a magical place,” one Palestinian camper told us. “People can actually come together as humans. Here, we live day to day along side Jordanians, Egyptians, Israelis, and Americans. We forget about nationalities. We talk. We have fun. We can be friends.
“I am sad though, knowing that it won’t last,” he continued. “Before, I never believed such a thing could happen. Now I don’t want to go back to the real world.”
His eyes watered and his voice choked up a little, communicating an inkling of the deep pain we could only imagine. It was as if he had moved into a home in the Garden of Eden, only to find out he was scheduled for eviction.
He smiled, spying a group of his peers sporting a mix of yarmulkes, hijabs, and ball caps walking together, laughing and enjoying each other. “I will always hold in my heart one of the slogans of this camp: This is how the world should be.”
As I looked around at these kids my age from countries where bombings and gunfire broke out routinely, I felt a sense of nervous anticipation for the challenges they faced. What was it like to sit at dinner with people who have been blamed for all of your family’s problems? I would think that I would be angry all the time. I marveled at their willingness to be open-minded and to try this experiment. Even though Mom and I were not allowed to sit in on the daily, intense, dialogue discussions where tempers did flare and painful layers of history were peeled back like Band-Aids, I was well aware that happy hiking trips were not the only activities. I heard about how hard it is for them to go home afterward. Looking around me, I felt the wonder, but also the weight, of the peacemaking work on the shoulders of my peers.
The chanting now reaches a crescendo…
Boom…Boom…Boom, “Seeds of Peace!”
Boom…Boom…Boom, “Seeds of Peace!”
As I gaze over the joyous chaos of the arrival ceremony, I realize this festival isn’t chaotic at all. Everything about this place has been brilliantly honed over the years to create a safe, warm, welcoming environment wherein real communication can take place. This opening ritual transcends language differences and cultural barriers with music and movement to immediately put anxious teens at ease and soften their landing in a strange and potentially fearful environment.
I really had a fun time banging on the drums. I was enjoying the evolution of the music as more and more people were added. Everyone had a place, whether they were riffing on a sophisticated instrument like a violin or trumpet that they had played for years or just shaking a maraca. I wove in and out of the rhythms as they moved from an African-style thumping into a more varied, exotic kind of world-music. Then people began dancing; a red-haired girl brought out long scarves that traced graceful arcs in the air. It was a cool, vibrant energy. You know how people sometimes do an exercise to get a group going and it feels faked? This had substance. It felt primal. It was very real.
My eyes travel over the sea of bouncing and stomping and fall on the front porch of one of the more prominent log cabins. Slightly larger than the others, this is the virtual “Capitol” of the camp. Standing there at the center of it all, orchestrating the proceedings like a symphony conductor, is Seeds of Peace Executive Director, Leslie Lewin—the woman we had come this long way to interview.
With her dark brown hair pulled back into a bouncy ponytail, the ever-present Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup, baggy sweatpants, and freckles dancing across a makeup-free face, Leslie looks almost as young and optimistic as the counselors and campers she leads. Part camp director, part mother hen, part world-class diplomat, her dynamic spirit is the spark that keeps this amazing place going year after year.
We had arrived the night before after a grueling road trip all the way through the heart of New England. We awoke at the crack of dawn to begin the eight-hour drive from our home in Princeton, New Jersey, hoping to arrive before darkness fell at the other end. Due to her penchant for carsickness, Darcy was a bit dubious about making such a long trip on four wheels. We decided, though, that it made a lot more sense to drive up to Maine in our own car rather than book flights and rent a car, since the camp was nowhere near an airport. Plus, as Darcy never failed to remind me, we still didn’t have a budget for this mother-daughter escapade and there were many more places we needed to go. Prudence and economy, then, put us on the highway in our blue Ford Escape—well armed with a GPS on the dash, a goal in mind, a spirit of adventure in our hearts, and a secret stash of Dramamine (just in case).
I was looking forward to this time in the car with Darcy. If I spend long enough cooped up with my talkative daughter, she will eventually tell me everything that is going on inside her teenage hormone-infused brain—often things she never really means to share with her parents. Boredom, for Darcy, is a form of truth serum.
“People at my old school told me I should lose weight before I start at a new high school in a new town,” Darcy shared with me. “They said I will have more friends if I do.”
“That’s horrible!” I said, taking my eyes off the road briefly to look at her directly. “You’re a size six…you have a beautiful figure.”
“Aw, Mom,” Darcy groaned and slumped, “you don’t know what it’s like. I want to be pretty. I want to have lots of friends. Maybe even a boyfriend someday. Do you think I ever will?”
“Of course you will…and you are beautiful,” I said. Steering the conversation was a lot harder than steering the car. Did my words counterbalance the peer pressure at all? Was I setting a bad example with my own constantly changing diets? Would I be able to handle seeing my daughter go on a date? As our chat continued, I found some of the topics uncomfortable, but I was certainly glad we had lots of time to talk.
By the end of three hours in the car, Darcy had pretty much downloaded, in excruciating detail, every tidbit of drama with her friends, what she hoped to achieve socially as a sophomore in a new high school next year, struggles with her sense of racial identity, how she felt about moving back and forth between divorced parents, and many other things that loomed gigantic in her life. And we still hadn’t even completed half the trip!
When we stopped to refuel—both the car and our stomachs—for the next leg of the journey, I discovered a five-hour-long book on tape in the convenience store to get us through the rest of the drive. The gripping spy story and exquisitely dramatized reading had us on the edge of our electrically adjustable seats all the way to Maine. Laughing together while having our imaginations titillated by the mystery unfolding in literary twists and turns was so much fun we missed that crucial left turn after we got off the freeway…a mistake that added yet another hour to the already long trip. All this entertainment provided an extra special bonus, too, since Darcy never once mentioned an upset tummy.
Finally, at dusk, we arrived—tired, groggy, and wanting to never, ever, see the inside of our car again. A staffer working late pointed us to our overnight accommodations. We picked our way over muddy dirt trails (thank goodness for four-wheel drive!) to the row of white clapboard cabins near the housing for the adult chaperones who accompany the Seeds from each country. The lodging was spartan, with charmingly mismatched furniture—probably inherited through donations or acquired at flea markets—and permeated by that unmistakably familiar woodsy/musty aroma such barracks always contain. After unloading our gear, we bravely set off on foot to find our host in what was, by now, a pitch-black night.
I reluctantly followed Mom out of the comfy, well-lit cabin into the limitless darkness outside. It had been a long time since I had been out in the woods after sunset. A noise to my left made me jump, which made Mom laugh nervously. Was it an animal? Had I heard there were bears out here? I recoiled again, feeling something touch the back of my neck—and slapped hard as I realized it was just a tiny mosquito looking for a late-night snack.
I knew this was the kind of situation that made Darcy really uncomfortable. The peace and stillness of this summer evening was pleasant, but at the same time, a little disconcerting. I could see Darcy’s eyes large and alert—her entire body ready to dash screaming away from the nasty critter that was certain to jump out of the desolate void before us any minute. Her vividly imagined fears were making me edgy, too.
Just when we both were sufficiently creeped out, ready to turn tail and run back to the sanctuary of our wooden hut, a pair of bright lights appeared rounding a corner about a hundred yards in front of us. Eerily quiet, the brilliant orbs closed the distance between us at an alarming rate. At first, I thought I might be hallucinating from the numbness of the previous ten-hour car drone. But, no, this apparition seemed quite real, otherworldly, a close encounter with a couple of bouncing-ball ETs way out here in the boondocks! I glanced over at Darcy. Her mouth was open, but nothing came out.
Good. I wasn’t crazy. She saw it, too.
I steeled myself, ready to throw us both diving for cover. The beast stopped right in front of us…
“Hi guys! Welcome to Maine!” an incongruously sweet voice called out.
And there she was, the object of our odyssey into the wilderness, Leslie Lewin, piloting an electrically powered golf cart with two great big headlights.
I threw off my crepuscular anxiety and burst into a smile at the lovely woman before us. We had first met Leslie, briefly, at her office in New York City. There, atop a sleek high-rise office building with the big-city din providing an edgy, urban soundtrack, Leslie wore a lovely suit, sat behind an elegant yet practical desk, and flawlessly played the role of a successful nonprofit executive. But here, among the crickets and tree frogs, a softer, easier woman appeared. Fashionably tailored hems were replaced by comfortable, unconstructed T-shirts and sweatpants. Even in the dark, I could clearly see this was Leslie’s natural habitat. She seemed somehow more alive, more herself than back in town. You could feel the energy crackling around her.
“I’m doing rounds, if you want to join me,” she announced with a perkiness that belied the hour. Eager to begin our mission, we jumped aboard.
I think Leslie may have been apprehensive about being shadowed by people planning to write about her (who wouldn’t be?), but she was more than gracious about including us in her ride around the campus. Little did she know we were as nervous as she was. While we already had our Liberian phone interview under our belts, this was to be the very first job shadow we would perform for this book. As we climbed onto the backseats and bounced with her around the camp, I was awash in the reality of the moment. We were actually doing this. My daughter was beside me and we were embarking on an epic journey we would remember for the rest of our lives.
Leslie Lewin was the perfect person to begin with. Her easy, unflappable, warm, and welcoming spirit was just what we needed to get our feet wet. I was also glad we were starting with a subject Darcy had fought to put at the top of our list. Seeds of Peace connected deeply with her passion for building bridges across cultures, languages, and religions. In her early thirties, Leslie would be one of the youngest leaders we would interview—not to mention an expert in motivating teenagers—so I felt she would easily engage Darcy’s imagination and get us off to a rousing start. I could already tell that our visit would turn into something marvelous.
We scooted back and forth over the rocks and roots of the narrow forest paths. Leslie delivered some sleeping bags and towels to a cabin that was in short supply. She saw a broken screen door and radioed in the repair request. We stopped to talk with staffers who had questions. She gave encouragement and support to others where needed. Basically, she was buzzing around like any other sleep-away-camp administrator—making sure everything was physically ready for the influx of arrivals that would descend upon us the next day.
When a bright, shining summer sun crested the horizon the next morning, day one of this Seeds of Peace session commenced. Everyone hustled about with excitement and anticipation. Camper arrivals began after lunch, so last-minute details were furiously scratched off the many and varied to-do lists all morning. The calm in the eye of the storm, Leslie mainly stayed by her “command post” cabin. The large, wooden porch and broad front steps seemed to be the central point from where all activities and directives rippled across the camp. This benevolent captain stayed constantly available to troubleshoot problems by radio or in person as a constant flow of team members stopped by to seek her advice and input.
And the parade of challenges began…
The flight from Jordan was canceled. The delegation is re-routing and not sure when they will arrive.
The father of one of the counselors died last night. She’s going home.
A leaky sink flooded one of the cabins rendering it uninhabitable.
We watched in awe as Leslie deftly authorized cabin reassignments and kept tabs on the situation in Jordan. She even made time to comfort the bereaved young woman who lost her father and help make arrangements to get her home.
Crises don’t follow a schedule. They seem to arrive in clumps.
“This is kind of like bird-watching,” Darcy observed as we sat on the porch waiting for the next upheaval. “You wait a while, then you see something exciting. Then you wait again.” As she spoke, her prophecy was fulfilled.
The uncharacteristic screech echoed through the thick, humid air. It seemed as though we were about to watch a very interesting bird.
Like a whirling dervish, the adorable little carrot-topped source of the outcry soon appeared in all his glory. No bird at all, Leslie’s two-and-a-half-year-old son, Sam, who was also in residence here at camp-central, came whizzing by with his Seeds-alum nanny, Jesse, hot on his heels. They were on their way for a diaper change. The moment he caught sight of his mother, it suddenly became imperative for the little fellow to have her attention right now.
“I want Mommy to change my diaper!”
When this particular outburst presented itself, Leslie happened to be deep in conversation with a group of local community leaders who were responsible for organizing an alumni outreach program.
“Honey,” replied Leslie calmly, “You have to go inside with Jesse right now, but I’ll be there in a few minutes to have a snack with you.”
Do the terrible twos listen to reason? It was like seeing a baseball pitcher wind up for the toss as Sam’s cherubic little cheeks began to glow beet red.
“Nooooo! Mommy! NOW!” he erupted.
My body tensed up in empathy. Would Leslie’s work be derailed by the tantrum? Would she give up and go inside for the sake of peace? Would she signal the nanny to drag away the screaming child while she pretends he isn’t really hers at all? Who would win this round of work-life balance?
In the true spirit of conflict resolution between diametrically opposing views, Leslie managed to stay respectful of both parties without missing a beat. Before Sam had a chance to completely disintegrate, Leslie smoothly crouched down to his eye-level:
Excerpted from How Great Women Lead by St. John, Bonnie Copyright © 2012 by St. John, Bonnie. Excerpted by permission.
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