Bonnie St. John is the former director of the National Economic Council in the Clinton White House and the first African-American ever to win Olympic medals in ski racing. At the age of five a rare condition forced the amputation of her right leg.
In a new book, St. John and her teenage daughter, Darcy Deane, explore the qualities that motivate some of the world’s most powerful women, from Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice to Sheryl Sandberg and Geena Davis. How Great Women Lead: a Mother-Daughter Adventure Into the Lives of Women Shaping the World is a journey to seek out the ulitimate female role models and find out what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
In this interview with The Story Exchange, Bonnie St. John and Darcy Deane share highlights from their journey – including the characteristic all great women leaders have – as well as an excerpt from their book.
Karin Kamp (KK): What did you find that the great women who lead all have in common?
BSJ: They each have really accepted themselves as individuals—their strengths, weaknesses, eccentricities, personalities, etc. Darcy came into the process thinking that to be a world-class leader she would have to act like a man and turn herself into this stereotype she had in her head about leaders. But after meeting with Sharon Allen, the first woman Chairman of the Board at Deloitte, who talked about being more successful after she found her own authentic style, Darcy realized she could be herself AND be a leader.
Amy Pascal, Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, talked about finding your niche and excelling in it. She says, “You have to completely stay inside of what you’re doing, what you’re good at, and who you are if you’re going to succeed. You have to figure out that thing that makes you different, the thing that you know and the thing that you have that is your gift.”
KK: Why do women still need role models?
BSJ: Hillary Clinton told us, “It’s important still, today, for women to go out of their way to make sure they mentor other women. It’s amazing to me that we still need to do it, but I know we do.”
Because we have things to learn and barriers to push through to have our valuable contributions recognized, we need to help each other grow and adapt: When a working woman becomes a new mother and needs to juggle; when a woman works in the C-suite surrounded by men, when a woman gets breast cancer. There are so many situations when we need to support each other.
Denise Dresser, a political activist in Mexico, advised us: “Perhaps the most essential thing is this: I read that being part of a group that meets twice a month generates more happiness than a raise does. In one of my groups, we meet for lunch every two weeks on Tuesdays. We come from different walks of life. It’s a lunch where we can discuss the recent Supreme Court ruling in one minute and then in the next minute, what the best color of foundation is after you’ve gotten sunburn. It ranges from the truly fundamental to the most trivial.
“I always go into battles thinking, ‘I’m going to win.’ That comes from the confidence and the security that other women give to you. How do you say it? Las porristas? We’re like this collective group of cheerleaders for ourselves. It feeds my attitude and arms me with the fearlessness and commitment to go back out there. Find a group of like-minded women who share what they’re doing; that’s my best advice.”
KK: As a woman who has thrived and overcome many obstacles, what is your advice to women who want to lead?
BSJ: Rishika Daryanani, a high school junior and great leader who we interviewed, said it best: “Find your passions first. Find your fight, you know? Figure out what you want to do; figure out what presses your buttons and then go with that. If you’re not passionate about something, then there’s no point in pursuing it. Honestly, if you don’t absolutely love and breathe what you do, then there’s no point.” Rishika spoke with an authority far beyond her years.
I was passionate about skiing. After growing up in San Diego, ski areas seemed magical. Being able to compete against other amputees allowed me to be an athlete for the first time—high school track or swimming wasn’t open to me as a person with only one leg. I raised my own money, hired my own coaches, and traveled to train in Vermont, Colorado, Lake Tahoe and even a glacier in Oregon for two summers. I waited tables, found sponsors, and even broke one leg and then the other one (the artificial one) during my senior year in high school. Without the kind of passion Rishika talks about, you can’t get over the many challenges you’ll face.
KK: Darcy, which women stood out to you personally?
Darcy Deane (DD): Before writing the book, I thought the stereotypical command and control model was a perfect example of leadership. So the women who stood out most for me in the interviews were the women who broke my stereotypes. Leslie Lewin, the executive director of Seeds of Peace leads by example. She cares for the camp and exudes the attitude she wants her staffers and campers to share. Eileen Fisher, a fashion designing CEO, is another woman who broke the mold as a visionary who leads by nurturing the people in her company. Both of these extraordinary leaders made me realize that people can lead in every way shape and form. A leader doesn’t have to be loud to be heard.
KK: Who is your role model?
DD: All of the women we meet on our journey have changed my concept of leadership, but I would say Dr. Condoleezza Rice is an important role model because she helped me realize the connection between leadership and my own passions.
As I was meeting these incredible women, I wondered what the link was between my passions and leadership. My dream has always been to become an expert in the field of linguistic anthropology, but I get funny looks whenever I mention it since most people don’t know that it’s the study of the relationship between languages and cultures.
Dr. Rice put it together for me. One question we asked her was: What do you think the leader of the future looks like? She replied that even though it’s possible nowadays to travel among the leaders of almost every nation and communicate only in English, a better understanding of foreign cultures and languages is crucial for our survival in a global world.
That really brought it home for me. I finally understood that my talents could be the key ingredients for a world leader. Dr. Rice helped me see myself in a new light.
KK: How did this journey change you?
DD: Now that I see myself as capable of being a world leader, I get involved with different activities. For example, when I founded a Model United Nations club at my virtual high school it meant coordinating kids from Vietnam, India, Europe, and the US to learn about world issues and how to push for collaborative solutions in a virtual setting.
Now I am looking at colleges where I can have an opportunity to have internships with international organizations and continue learning how to build bridges between nations using my passion for languages and cultures.