Women in Leadership: Who Do You Admire?

Guest column by Lauree Stroud Purcell

Editor’s Note: Lauree Purcell is a freelance writer and mother of two teenage daughters in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Last month at a local community college, I represented my branch of the American Association of University Women in a panel discussion on women and leadership. As I researched this topic, I learned some helpful ideas for some current models of women in leadership.

As she covered the Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and other major events around the globe, she influenced others toward much-needed humanitarian work in those areas.

Soledad O’Brien stands out as an exceptional leader to me. As an award-winning journalist, documentarian, news anchor, and producer, she is having a positive impact as she often takes on the divisive issues of race, class, wealth, and poverty. 

O’Brien and her husband, Brad Raymond, run a foundation that sends young women to and through college. They hope to help women overcome barriers to reach their highest potential. It’s inspiring to see how much O’Brien is accomplishing while raising four children, including twin boys. She believes that great leaders bring out the best in others by having faith in them and creating opportunities for them to shine.

O’Brien’s black Cuban mother and white Australian father taught her to never let others decide who she is and what that means for her. Her roots and upbringing have given her a unique perspective that expands her thinking about what questions to ask people and what stories to tell. She’s made highly regarded documentaries called Black in America and Latino in America. As she covered the Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and other major events around the globe, she influenced others toward much-needed humanitarian work in those areas.

As noted in a book by Marianne Schnall (see note below), O’Brien makes it known she has always felt supported by other women as she has advanced in her career. So it is natural that she regularly participates in mentoring projects and meetings with young people to uplift women and underserved communities. She connects women with each other to form supportive relationships and networks. She encourages her twin sons to not be limited by traditional gender stereotyping, and to be caregivers and nurturers while pursuing their chosen careers.   

A 2005 study (cited in Linda Lowen, “Qualities of Women Leaders,” About.com, December 16, 2014) conducted by two firms, Caliper and Aurora, determined that women leaders are different from men in four respects. They are more persuasive, they learn from adversity and push further toward their goals, they have an “inclusive, team-building leadership style” when making decisions and solving problems, and they are bigger risk-takers and rule-breakers. Professor Sandra L. Torres also notes similar qualities in a 2012 article, “Top 10 Attributes of Successful Women Leaders.” But a 2014 Pew Research Center Survey found that most Americans don’t believe men and women in business or political leadership positions have markedly different leadership styles. 

I do think that men and women often have different ways of interacting with others, but this is probably due more to the expectations of gender stereotyping than to our actual potential. In Schnall’s book, former football star and analyst Don McPherson says he believes that all humanity is capable of loving, nurturing, peaceful behavior but that for many years those qualities have been associated with women’s weakness. So men learn to suppress their emotions and instead use violence to deal with conflict. Men and women who can look beyond gender stereotypes are better able to work together to create a less violent, peaceful, and loving world.

Some women leaders are finding ways to create a better world through efforts to collaborate and form strong relationships with others who hold complementary goals and expertise. Demanding absolute power and control over others isn’t usually as effective as collaboration.

The leaders whom I respect enjoy inspiring others to achieve. They have high expectations for themselves and others, so they work hard to meet their goals. Globally, women reinvest three times as much of their income into the health, nutrition, and education of their families as men do. So getting women earning and participating equally in the world economy will greatly improve children’s prospects in life. Men and women need to support each other in their leadership roles because whoever has the talent, the know-how, and the confidence to do any job best should have that opportunity regardless of gender.

In her book, Schnall also features fashion designer Donna Karan, who believes we need leaders who can create, connect, collaborate, communicate, change, show compassion, and build community. Seeing these attributes as feminine is a matter of opinion, but it’s clear that women need to speak up and be a significant part of the conversation. Leading solely by domination is not acceptable in a family, in a business, or in almost any governmental role. Men and women need to work together to make positive changes in the shared life of their communities.


Want to be inspired by the thoughts of Soledad O’Brian and other great leaders? Lauree recommends Marianne Schnall’s What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations about Women, Leadership and Power, Seal Press, 2013.


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