From Divine Discontent to Persistence

An article by Sarah Weddington, AUSTIN WOMAN, January 2006. Reprinted with Permission

Nothing is more exhilarating than being able to make a difference. Women have always been leaders, but the women leaders of today-young and old alike-have a unique opportunity to leave their thumb prints on modern events. We can both enhance the leadership skills we have and build new ones. Doing so will allow us to have an impact on issues we care about and on those that we are pushed into by life's circumstances. So how to lead and make a difference?

1) PRACTICE LEADERSHIP Women often want to do only what they can do perfectly, which hampers their progress. When I learned to snow ski was so proud to reach the bottom without falling until the instructor said, "You will never be any good if you don't fall. The good ones go faster, take a risk, and learn to get up when they fall." To advance and lead, we must dare to go a little faster than we can control. We must also learn to get up when we fall. We must practice and keep trying. We become free to do a lot more by practicing.

2) LEARN TO USE A CRITICAL EYE Watch others and learn from them. Watch leaders whom you admire and copy their techniques. Watch poor leaders and learn from their mistakes. Dr. Albert Sabin, who developed the polio vaccine, once told me that a speech read is like a kiss over the phone...the intent is the same, but the feeling is not there. He taught me to prepare, but not read a speech. I watched Barbara Jordan speak and learned how to use key points...when to slow down, and when to wait for your audience to react. Improve your skills by watching and listening to others.

3) BE DIVINELY Discontented Look around and see what you want to change and what can be improved. Choose issues that compel you to act. Speak up. Research shows that those most likely to emerge as leaders are those who are not afraid to communicate. By speaking up on issues you care about, you position yourself for leadership and use your voice to effectively sell yourself.

4) LEARN TO VALUE PEOPLE AND CONNECTIONS My life and career have taken many avenues I could have never foreseen. I call them course corrections. Most would have never happened without a strong support network. People have to know you and your capabilities to make a recommendation. Individuals who know you are avenues for opportunity. For example, when President Carter asked for a female to serve as General Counsel, an associate and fellow Texan said, "What about Sarah Weddington?" and I was on my way to Washington. Often key positions are filled through "who do you know who can...?" types of conversations between colleagues. That is why networking is so important. A contact a day paves the way.

5) FLEXIBILITY AND PERSISTENCE PAY OFF Ask yourself, "What can I do today that will give me more options tomorrow?" A big key to having options is being flexible. Sometimes you think you will be doing one thing and you end up doing many others. I tell my students that they can expect seven to eight major professional parts to their lives, not to mention the personal aspects. You must watch for opportunities and take them when they are offered. Just like skiing, you will never succeed if you lock your knees. Once you have chosen a course, be persistent. Believe in yourself and your cause. Find others who will join and support you. Do not be uncomfortable applying the label leader to yourself.

Things have improved for women in leadership. However, in virtually every , women still represent just a thin veneer when one compares the number of women leaders with the number of male leaders in the same or similar fields of work. We must have increasingly expansive attitudes toward ourselves and our capacity for leadership. One of my favorite cartoons is of a boy and a girl playing in the backyard. The boy has on a stethoscope and is holding a doctor's kit. The little girl says, "OK, you can be the doctor and I will be the Secretary of Health and Human Services." I like her attitude.