Monday, June 9, 2014

Madeleine and Audra

Madeleine Albright shows off her Wellesley Blue sneakers
"Be yourself."

You have heard it before. Everyone has said it--from your mother sending you out the door on your first day of school, to your BFF giving you a pep talk before that big job interview. But when this is the advice offered to women leaders from Madeleine Albright, you somehow hear it in a new way. And it doesn't seem trite at  all.

I was at Wellesley for my college reunion, and Madeleine (Class of '59) was speaking in conjunction with the opening of Read My Pins, an exhibit at the Davis Art Museum. Following a fascinating talk that combined stories detailing how she used her pins to convey diplomatic messages, the floor was opened up for questions. A few questions arose about how best to be a woman leader in a world that still applies a double standard. Her response? "It is annoying when men do that but that's just the way it is. Be confident in what you are doing, and don't take such criticism personally." You can best do that when you are Being Yourself. By that I think she meant that in a leadership role you need to know your strengths and play to them. Trust your instincts and your homework. Do not feel the need to become someone else's idea of what a leader should be. And I would extrapolate even further (to summarize a point I have read in other books on women's leadership) that you are a leader because you are a leader. No need to second-guess. Be bold. Be confident! I was lucky to see many examples this weekend of classmates who were the embodiment of just that kind of leadership. They we enjoying themselves immensely, being themselves.

And then I came home and watched the Tony Awards. I watched Broadway stars, people who role-play for their living, celebrating their community. The surprise of the evening was, for me, the way the stunningly talented Audra McDonald was so overcome with emotion at winning her record-breaking sixth Tony that she cried throughout her acceptance speech. McDonald's profession depends on her self-knowledge and self-possession, yet she felt free to be undeniably herself.

In moments of heightened emotion (or heightened stress) we can give ourselves this gift. If we do not stand outside ourselves, worrying about how others will judge us, we can act on what our preparation and our inner guide tell us we must do. Great leaders know that being authentic, even when it means being vulnerable, is a mark of strength. Great actors do, too!

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