Who Will Lead Us?

Last week began with a lunch with Marsha Firestone, Founder and President of the Women's President Organization, an organization comprised of women leaders of businesses grossing over 2 million annually. WPO has 80 chapters nationwide "Members of the WPO take part in professionally-facilitated peer advisory groups in order to coax the 'genius out of the group' and grow their businesses to the next level." The statistics on job creation (mostly from small businesses), small business entrepreneurs (more than 60% women) and the contrast to the large corporate business environment could not be more jarring. And while there are efforts to increase minority presence in and purchasing from, by corporations with commitments to supporting diversity, it is an uphill battle - and Marsha and her organization are leaders. Their work also aims to create the next generation of leaders through education via conferences and events.

Last Tuesday night the Grand Ballroom was packed with a quintessential group of New Yorkers who are vocal about change and social justice. HELP USA held their annual gala, honoring General Petraeus and his wife Holly Petraeus. The star studded list of presenters, from Marcia Gay Harden and Charles Grodin to Tom Brokaw and Bob & Lee Woodruff, to the attendees including the Cuomo/Cole family, Tisch, Trump and dozens of other NY stalwarts.

One of the several causes that HELP USA focuses on is armed service veteran homelessness; and not that anyone merits homelessness, but you would think that we would make sure that the men and women who sacrifice their lives so we can sleep soundly in our beds, are guaranteed a safe and warm bed of their own. There are over 130,000 homeless veterans in our country. The General accepted his award in order to raise awareness of this shocking reality and thank the HELP donors for their support.

His speech was gentle yet focused and I could not help but wonder if I could catch a glimpse or somehow infer a characteristic that made this soldier rise to the rank of general. What is the magic that made him a leader? For the 15 minutes I listened to him speak, I glimpsed a human and humble man. Is his brilliance cloaked in seemingly ordinary posture? I will have to read about his style to better understand the general I saw and the General who leads our troops.

Two days later, at the kick-off for Women's History Month sponsored by the Mayor's office, I listened to Mayor Bloomberg speak about the important role played by women. In characteristic humor he saluted the women who are critical to his success "who clean up after me" (3 of his 7 commissioners are female) and affirmed his belief that women "show us you can do everything." Barnard President Debora Spar introduced the program for the morning - a series of speed mentoring encounters geared towards providing young women with sage advice and guidance that comes from a mentor relationship. She spoke of her experience with male and female mentors over the years.

Back to Barnard on Friday for the advisory board meeting for the newly establish Athena Center for Leadership Studies. Creating women leaders - how to establish a program; what are the components of study; what are the characteristics that define leadership; what are the values the program would teach. Over the course of 3 hours, these concepts were discussed by a very distinguished and wise group of women.

Training leaders entails identifying essential values. Are values and goals gender neutral? Do women use the word 'creative' while men pick 'innovative'? Risk taking - are there gender differences - and do they result in different strategies for success, or are there inherent limitations in one method over the other? It was mentioned that women attribute failure to themselves, while men attribute it to others. Does this program need to teach decision-making abilities, persistence, and integrity - or are those characteristics pre-selected in someone who gravitates towards leadership positions. Do we value feminine characteristics in leadership role and big business? (In a lighthearted moment, one participant noted the LACK of women in the ranks of corporate villains responsible for the financial meltdown of '08. Small comfort and a smile.)

And to add to the landscape, this coming Thursday, the annual dinner series for the Women's Campaign Forum, dedicated to "achieving parity for women in public office by supporting women leaders at all levels of office during the earliest stages of their public life, when that support is needed most." Financial support, education, coaching in media relations and public speaking - are just some of the ways WCF supports women candidates.

With the list of what needs fixing in the world growing daily, we are all looking for leaders to right the wrongs and show us the way to peace and prosperity. I wonder what the West Point Leadership Manual looks like. I don't doubt that business programs that support women owned businesses will help create stronger women owned businesses which will in turn be agents for positive change in the social and corporate environment. I am thrilled that there is an abundance of movement in providing learning opportunities for women in government, business, education, politics and the non-profit world. Perhaps it means that we are feeling the consequences of not having enough women at the table in boardrooms, on the Senate floor, in the courthouses - in positions of influence. There are currently only 15 female world leaders.

Today is International Women's Day. I could probably list all the ways it will attempt to support women globally, but I then wonder why there is no need for International Men's Day.

"International Women's Day (8 March) is a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. In some places like China, Russia, Vietnam and Bulgaria, IWD is a national holiday.

Every year, there is a theme to the day. The theme for International Women's Day 2010 is Equal "rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all."
The United Nations has given its full support to International Women's Day and it fights for women's rights as a major global issue.
Nicholas Kristof articulated three ideas for raising women's status around the world in a New York Times column today."

The debate is fascinating, the challenges are great, the outcome is uncertain, the stakes are high, the playing fields are not even and the generalities are inaccurate. Who will lead us? To quote Barbra Streisand from the Oscar's, "The time has come."