First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, published earlier this year by Kate Andersen Brower, was given to me as a gift upon my appointment as APUS president. It tells the story of ten of our country’s first ladies, including Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Michelle Obama and Nancy Reagan. At the time, I thought, well, this is interesting, and why this book? I was quickly captivated by the fascinating stories of their unique and similar challenges living in the White House and being in the public eye as first lady. Themes that resonated with me were those of being both a wife and mother while in the public eye, balancing the need for privacy with public presence, the networks of support that surround them and how they use these networks, and the courage, grace, and character they demonstrate in fulfilling this role.
While reading this book, I have also been binge-watching the “Madam Secretary” cable series. I have made it through the first two seasons and can’t wait for the third when it is up on Netflix. Similar themes are threaded throughout this series and examine and provide insight into leadership challenges: the importance of balancing family with work and what this means being on the public stage as Elizabeth and Henry McCord both serve in public office and national security roles with their three children; the constant change and volatility of the office and work and being able to respond appropriately, quickly, and to adjust leadership and interaction mode moment- to-moment, and person-to-person; the importance of the support team for Elizabeth McCord and does the ground work on her behalf, including her Chief of Staff Nadine and staff members Daisy, Matt, Blake and Jay. What a team they are on all fronts and all topics personal and matters of state! Finally, there is the importance of communication, alignment and managing up as seen in her relationships with the president and his chief of staff, Russell Jackson.
During my first few months as president of APUS, both this book and series have captured my attention in several ways and served as “professional development” of sorts. Reading and watching have provided opportunities for reflection as Ms. Brower explains how the various first women address challenges and build a life. As Elizabeth McCord in each episode faces a situation of conflict in her personal life, in her marriage, and with the president, it provides a window on various strategies for conflict management, communication, team-building, and leadership.
What have I learned? What insights have I gleaned from these two very different media, one factual story, the other fiction? For starters, each woman leader is, first and foremost, her own person. The first women were all living in the same house but managed it, their schedules and the expectations placed on each of them in very unique ways. The same is true for McCord; she was her own person and stayed true to herself and her values and that was a strength of her leadership as secretary of state.
Second, while not a new insight, I am reminded that while time may not always feel like it is my own, it is essential to the success of the work and the organization that I/we take care of ourselves as women leaders. Our passion for what we do and for the missions we serve contributes to our being in leadership roles. It motivates us to give, and give, and we need to have a well from which we draw to be able to do so and be present in the public eye. Maintaining a sense of privacy, one’s family and one’s well-being is paramount. All are important characteristics contributing to the success of these women, and of perhaps all women leaders of similar passion and conviction.
Finally, these women all had a team to support them and upon whom they depended. They trusted that team and let them do their jobs. Elements of accountability were evident as the staff in the White House adjusted to and supported each first lady uniquely and completely and as Helen McCord’s team did in the State Department. Each team had the back of the women they supported and each leader counted on that support in different ways. Selecting and building a team, trusting this team, and then letting them do the work is critical to the success of the White House, the State Department and of APUS.
This book and TV series have been both entertaining and provided opportunities for my reflection on leadership as the new president of APUS.