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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 world.

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 their dues.

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 turn off.

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 groups.

·       Know and trust experts who can give them honest information.

·       Can be trusted to be discrete and keep a leader’s thoughts private.

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 attitudes.

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 unintended consequences?” 

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 confident.

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: www.globalleadershipnetwork.com.

Should you want some personal leadership advice go to “Ask Dr. Karen.”



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