Years ago, Susan Ballard waited backstage to speak at a McDonald’s Woman Owner Network conference featuring the company’s top executives. The tone of the conference reflected the tone of many of the conferences she had attended: the McDonald’s system is strong, and business is good.
Ballard and her colleagues, for the mostpart agreed with that assessment, but they also knew changes needed to be made. And Ballard and some of the other women owners had a vision for these changes. Ballard was reluctant to speak at the conference and put a dent in the goodwill. Nevertheless, the strength of her vision led her to stand up and walk up to the lectern. She began her speech with a question that still echoes in her head. “What is wrong with this meeting, right now, right here?” she asked. Silence. Then, she shared her vision.
The specifics of the vision that Ballard presented that day don’t matter. The point is, she accepted her responsibility to be visionary and exercised her right to present her vision. Women are visionary, but they fail to recognize it in themselves and speak their mind.
In general, men have no problems positioning themselves as visionaries. Purveyors of history generously announce men as accomplished visionaries. Men in leadership roles, therefore, have role models and the expectation that they will present their vision. Women, on the other hand, have a short list of accomplished public figures to model themselves after, and the cultural expectation works against women announcing their vision and expecting others to applaud and follow.
The visionary women interviewed for this article all had to overcome their hesitancy and learn how to recognize a vision and then how to put forth that vision to the public. They learned that a vision does not have to come from the public domain or from a position of power; it can be inspired by intimacy. Additionally, these women learned how to open themselves to being swept away, even overwhelmed, by their vision. Finally, they recognized that sharing a vision is one of the prerequisites for successful leadership.
Vision Begets Vision
For some women, the genesis of their leadership vision is personal. Sixteen-year-old Pat Harris, the youngest of 11 children, left McBee, South Carolina, and moved to New York City. Nine-year-old Enola Aird left Panama and her parents to live with her aunt in the United States. Nora Moreno-Cargie saw her mother bravely open the first minority-owned currency exchange in Chicago. These three women tell compelling stories of older, caring females who showed courage in the face of poverty and cultural dislocation. They learned strength and persistence from multigenerational relationships. These relationships are the genesis of vision.
Enola Aird is founder and president of the Community Healing Network. She credits her aunt, who emigrated from Panama to seek a better life for her family, as the bold pathfinder in her life. Aird, an erudite Yale Law graduate, found her own vision and life’s work after a heated exchange with her young daughter about the length and texture of a doll’s hair. Aird lovingly held her daughter’s face to the mirror and told her, “Look in this mirror and make sure you never love anything more than you love what you see in this mirror.” From this literal vision for her daughter and exchanges with like-minded people in her community, Aird envisioned the Community Healing Network as “a nonprofit organization creating a network of self-help groups focused on mobilizing black people to overcome the myth of black inferiority and other emotional legacies of racism.” Following in the footsteps of a woman who envisioned a better life for her family 60 years ago, Aird bravely upholds a bold vision for a better life for her greater family.
A similar tale unfolds for Pat Harris, global chief diversity officer for McDonald’s Corporation, as well as for Nora Moreno-Cargie, director of global corporate citizenship for Chicago at the Boeing Company. Each woman credits her mother for the strength to follow a vision and the courage to keep the vision alive. Both credit their fathers with having a positive influence while emphasizing the boldness and leadership exemplified by their mothers. Without a visionary influence at a young age, three visionary women—Aird, Moreno-Cargie, and Harris—believe they would not be who they are today.
“My vision grabbed me at age 16 and would not let me go,” exclaims Pat Harris. “I did not know it then, but my vision chose me and continues to hold me.” Like the others, rather than ignore the terrifying gut-tsunami kicked up by a bold vision, Harris let herself be swept away into the swell of a better future. They let their inner visionary speak and learned how to speak for it. Interestingly, all admitted that others would readily call them a visionary, but none recognized it in herself at that “aha!” moment. Only in retrospect did these women honor their visionary moments as such.
Announcing the Vision
Whatever the genesis of the vision, personal or professional, one can only be considered a visionary when one presents that vision. Lily Tang, a consultant with Future Work Institute, gave herself permission to be a visionary when she tired of hearing her inner voice repeat, “If only I had said something.” In a majority male environment, she teams up with capable men. Tang explains, “White males don’t see Asian women as powerful leaders; subconsciously, they see us as the helper and the support.”
Her strategy for overcoming that subconscious bias is to wait for the right moment. “So, walking into a program, I am fine with a male kicking it off, but I ask him to bring my voice in early and not let me sit on the sidelines for any significant period of time.”
A visionary who is unable to articulate her vision to anyone else will likely never have an impact. It takes a skilled leader to express and integrate vision into a task-oriented culture. Thus, the best visionary also leads well. Vision becomes public through effective leaders—and most effective leaders at strategic times present their visions.
Women-owned businesses tend not to be as financially successful as those owned by men. A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Why Are Women-Owned Firms Smaller Than Men-Owned Ones?,” chronicles the male-owned business edge. In 2008, the average revenues of majority women-owned businesses were 27 percent of the average of majority men-owned businesses. The author, Sharon Hadary, asserts that women’s self-limiting perceptions share part of the blame for the lack of success. Her remedies include encouraging women to think bigger, increasing measurements for business success, and finding ways to learn from women leaders.
Perhaps one method for women to learn from other women leaders—and think bigger—would be to encourage and develop more women visionaries. Studies from the Center for Women’s Business Research show that women relate to other women in business more easily than they relate to men. If women visionaries are to translate their vision into action, they need seasoned female leaders to teach them how to lead.
Visionary women are essential to society. Through the hope and courage they spread, others find the voice to affirm their commitment to a grand idea and to each other. Moreno-Cargie from Boeing beautifully expresses the need for visionaries by quoting a proverb: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Women of vision, please come to the podium. DW
Gia Interlandi is the president of the Leadership Conservatory, an educational and consulting firm. For more information, visit www.leadershipconservatory.com.