Leadership, in its widest sense, is simply an extension of human talents, but it is of use for the benefit of others as much as for oneself. Entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn once described leadership this way: “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.”
That’s a tall order, and one that is difficult to achieve. There is no perfect recipe for leadership, but during my time as speaker, I have found many of the above maxims are true, especially in the realm of politics. And while more men hold leadership positions in states across the country, the above quote easily applies to both male and female leaders.
I was elected as speaker of the house in the state of Tennessee in 2011. As the first woman elected to that role, the history of that accomplishment is not lost on me. I am, however, always quick to point out, my male and female colleagues together chose to entrust this leadership position to me, and their confidence in me is humbling. I do not presume to know everyone’s individual reason for electing me, but for many, I doubt my gender was the impetus. I certainly hope that it was due to my proven record, my values and my leadership skills.
I am keenly aware that I can serve as a role model to other young women, and this is a role I take quite seriously, especially because I have a daughter. She inspires me to be a better leader, and to try to make a positive difference in this state and country. I want to be a leader who remembers that every decision can have an impact on her future—what kind of world will we leave behind for her?
As the first female speaker of the house, I am often asked to speak to women’s groups about their involvement in politics. In many elections, women vote at a higher rate than men. Why then, are there so few female legislators? The numbers suggest it’s not due to indifference.
That is a complex question, one that does not have a precise answer. I encourage women to run for office, provided they are doing it for the right reasons. Women have a different perspective than men—not better, but different—that is vital to the political process. In my experience, they also tend to focus on more family-oriented issues: education, child welfare and family law. Americans are better off when these different perspectives are presented at all levels of government.
I am often asked how I balance a family, politics and work. I have concluded that really, the goal is not so much balance, but keeping perspective that I heard described as “sequencing” life. This allows me to concentrate on each of life’s tasks, both minor and major, at the proper time and enjoy them in the process.
For example: When my father became ill, I dropped everything to be at his side. My children were without me for a period of time and my legislative activities were curtailed. I canceled long-standing engagements, which I am loath to do. Was my life balanced? No. But it was the most appropriate action given that period of my life.
I share that story with women considering a run for office often. I do it to illustrate there are times when profession comes first, times when family comes first and times when self comes first. While not perfectly balanced, it is understanding the ebb and flow of life. Taking the trouble to squeeze it all in—work, kids, pets, exercise, church and volunteer work—that is the point. We do it all because we want to live full lives. These are the invaluable perspectives women bring to leadership roles.
Serving as speaker of the house in Tennessee is the greatest honor of my professional life. My experiences as a wife, a mother and a former professor all have played a part in shaping my leadership skills. Most of all, however, is the passion and caring nature women often possess that leads them to public service and helps them rise to leadership roles. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “When people say a woman’s place is in the home, I say with enthusiasm—it certainly is, but if she really cares about her home, that caring will take her far and wide.”