Women Leaders: Portraits of Power
Vital Voices Latin America and Caribbean Women’s Summit:
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Dr. Karen Otazo
….My talk tonight honors the wonderful women leaders around the
This presentation is about the past and the present. Based on
experience working with leaders, I’ll be mentioning “guides” that
will make a difference for you and others you mentor. These are your
tips to keep in mind in your leadership lives.
The women who are my “Portraits of Power” are the leaders I chose to
display today; they are not the only ones. My list is global; the
examples in my talk are more from my personal experiences with women
leaders I’ve met. The steel in all these amazing women was tempered
by adversity, exile, working against all odds for the rights of
children, indigenous people and for the poor. They have all paid
1) Michelle Bachelet - President of Chile
2) Helen Clark - Prime Minister of New Zealand
3) Sarah Palin – US Governor and Vice Presidential Candidate
4) Rigoberta Menchu, Presidential candidate, Guatemalan Human Rights
Activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner -
5) Angela Merkel – Chancellor of Germany -
6) Hillary Clinton- US Senator and Presidential Candidate
7) Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf - Prime Minister of Liberia 8) Cristina
Fernandez de Kirchner – President of Argentina
All of these women of power have been candidates for the highest
leadership positions in their respective countries. Most of them
have been called “iron ladies,” because they take tough stances,
even if makes them unpopular or subject to unfair criticism.
Having met Hillary Clinton, I know how caring and supportive she can
be. In a nasty debate in New Hampshire when she cried, she was told
by two other contenders that she was “likeable enough” as they
bullied her. What a put down. Sarah Palin, another iron lady, used
humor to give the comic relief to lessen her intensity: “What’s the
difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”
This talk is not about politics but about personal style. Having met
both of these candidates, I was struck by how much their
determination and personal leadership shaped their successes. They
pushed against incredible odds for what they believed. Hillary for
healthcare for all Americans. Sarah for energy for her state with a
gas pipeline financed by oil companies.
Demonstrating self-control or personal leadership is the core
strength of social and political leaders. All leaders are expected
to demonstrate control of their bodies, the energy of their
communication, their attitudes, their relationships and their moods.
That means when a misguided head of state tries to massage your neck
you move away with grace as did Angela Merkel at a G8 Summit. All of
the guides and the experiences I’ll share with you today equip women
leaders to do just that: do what they need to do with grace.
We have come a long way in the last 30 years but not far enough.
When I started in the workforce, women were told that they could not
take leadership positions because of their “once a month raging
emotions.” Men seem concerned about women’s emotion although when
men are angry, it is not viewed as emotional.
Women must moderate and balance their energy if they
want to be effective leaders.
Yes, men can get away with anger. Women can have some passion. To
moderate and balance, here are a few guides to help you control what
others see as your emotions and manage the energy you spend.
Remember, that a little passion works well but too much can be a
Guide: Let your energy be like fine champagne--bubbly but not flat
or over carbonated like sodas. Show you have self-control even when
you are upset. The American president Lincoln famously wrote angry,
“hot,” letters when he was upset then tore them up. If he did
exchange angry words, he would excuse himself. In observing
effective leaders, I’ve noticed that they “compartmentalize” their
emotions so they can be totally calm under great stress. When I’ve
been in the presence of leaders that remain calm those around them
become afraid of that “deadly calm?” Quiet and calm are very, very
powerful. Less is more.
This often, means we learn to hold back. As women, we often find it
difficult to concede that we cannot always have all the answers.
Guide: When you become a leader, you must give up what is often your
greatest strength – your expertise. Although experts can become
leaders they must let go and let others be experts. Leading takes a
lot of time and energy. You need to have stamina and you need time
to connect with your followers.
Guide: No matter what your age, you need to show both youthful
energy and the wise “Gravitas,” or wisdom, of age. You really need
to have the personal strength, physical and mental health, and
resilience to shake thousands of hands, be motivated in the face of
frustration, forgive insults and injuries, and bounce back. Guide:
Your energy needs to be upbeat without an obvious let down. Everyone
notices when your mood changes. How you react to negativity is often
more important than the fact that you have been challenged.
Leaders need to be aware of what works and what doesn’t. Here are
guidelines to ensure you are heard as well as respected.
Don’t complain and don’t explain.
Both ways we come across as too soft or too tough. When we complain
or explain, too much we are “whining and powerless.” There is more
power in short comments and explanations.
While women, as we are all aware, encounter sexism, we can still
have some control over how we are understood through the way we
communicate verbally and physically. The media have called powerful
women, “polarizing” or “divisive.” These are just media’s words for
“strong woman.” Although their strengths and their willingness to
use power have brought them success, successful women leaders have
learned to moderate their intensity when they chose to.
A few pointers for leading through your body language…Guide: Use
smiles conservatively. Smiling is positive but when used too
often makes us look like pleasers.
Smiles can make women seem motherly or dutiful daughters, two roles
that aren’t exactly viewed by men as powerful in public, since this
type of power is usually wielded behind the scenes. It’s easier to
“warm up” when you seem too tough or cold than vice versa.
Guide: Another nonverbal that has an impact is a straight back, head
held up and high without speaking. This quiet broad-shouldered
approach implies strong, silent, “manly” power.
Guide: Here’s a way to react when attacked –push back immediately,
but push back quietly. Don’t explain or get upset. The more calm
and confident you appear, the more powerful you’ll be.
Manners matter. Treating others with respect means that you learn
how to say “no” nicely. If you can, keep “no” out of your
vocabulary. You can, just don’t use a negative. Give staff the
bigger picture for your requests. Say “a case can be made…” That
way, your staff will speak well of you. All your staff must speak
well of you and treat you with respect.
Women tell me that if they don’t have guts then they don’t get the
glory. You need the grit of Eva Peron and you need the grace to be
kind to others and know when to extend favors. This is integral to
managing a leader’s web of relationships.
Relationships have to be developed, nurtured,
matured, and even have to be severed when no longer needed.
Great leaders need a capable and trustworthy network of all kinds of
people. They need people who can:
Give truthful and forthright guidance.
Connect with and reflect your important stakeholder
Know and trust experts who can give them honest
Can be trusted to be discrete and keep a leader’s
Guide: Choose your staff wisely. Leaders can have
staff that push back in person with you, but subordinates must speak
well of you publically. Anyone who undermines you publically, even
to co-workers, is a liability. Negative talk breeds negative
Sarah Palin was criticized by the press for getting rid of some of
her staff who didn’t support her. She felt had to do it to maintain
her power as the Governor of Alaska. I’ve seen too many women fail
when their staff undermine them. On the other hand, what happens
when you have enemies you can’t eliminate? “Keep your friends close
and your enemies closer.” One of my clients in Germany moved in with
her subordinate. He finally got so uncomfortable that he asked for
a package to leave the company!
Guide: Avoid a room of yes followers. Know when you need push back
and when you don’t. Push back is good for you, but disagreeable or
complaining behavior is not. Know and respect the difference.
People who push back but don’t push you around are key.
These workplace relationship rules of the road can help women
leaders protect themselves. An important guide for handling enemies:
Meet with your enemies but don’t give them free information like
your opinions or plans. Ask questions instead. Make them high-level
questions like, “What are the long term implications or potential
No one, no matter how brilliant and savvy, is an island. It takes a
community of like-minded, like-spirited, yet explicitly diverse
individuals to establish the kind of productive community that gets
things done. When I read stories of leaders losing their tempers,
playing games, not returning phone calls, treating people unfairly,
leaving them out of the loop, you know there is dysfunction.
Dysfunctional behavior leads to dysfunctional relationships. With
raw power, dysfunction can win for a while since it breeds fear.
Over the long haul, raw power, command and control, can destroy a
country or an organization. That is why a leader’s attitude can make
or break them.
In leadership, your attitude can mean everything. Women leaders must
look confident! I am famous for advocating the church steeple
position with your hands. Everywhere in the world that is seen as
Your attitude can inspire others or depress them. A political or
social leader has to have complete confidence that all will work out
and convey that to their followers.
Self-confidence is the key to how you are perceived. Do you have
the guts to choose to work with someone who disagrees with you?
Guide: If you have people around you who show you the errors of your
ways, and you learn from those errors, you are way ahead. It is
important that your staff and followers see that you are willing to
change if the situation around you changes.
You want to keep on a steady course though. You can get into
trouble as a “flip flopper” if you change too often.
Guide: Leaders must always remain connected. Great political leaders
connect with the hopes and fears of the people they represent. Smart
leaders enlist their spouses to be roving ambassadors to meet with
groups of real people, especially in stressful times. Nestor
Kirchner and Franklin Roosevelt both benefited from their wives’
abilities to connect with people.
What connects a leader to followers in speeches stories, drama, and
history. Always make sure followers see you as a real person, with
a story about a real person.
Leaders must also be able to handle a complex situation full of lots
of different issues, people, and demands while thinking short,
medium, and long term. Most of the world enjoys watching television
and movies. Guide: Help your followers see the consequences by
playing out the whole movie. That way, others can see the intended
consequences over time.
Please remember that I’m talking about leadership
thinking and skills and not about political choices as the
presidential drama plays out in the US. I believe in and am a
passionate advocate for women and leadership. We women need to
support each other. That is why I support Vital Voices.
I wish you all tremendous success now and in the future. For more
hard-learned truths from years of experience coaching leaders around
the world, go to my website:
Should you want some personal leadership advice go to “Ask Dr.