November 9, 2016
Dear Secretary Clinton,
When I was a little girl growing up in Chicago, my dad told me I could be president of the United States. I didn’t really know what that meant or what it would take. I chose other paths because there wasn’t anyone to show me the way. Sixty years later, I’m helping women communicate better, negotiate more effectively, and think creatively about leadership. And now, there is someone who has shown us the way.
You have publicly faced the same kinds of debilitating challenges that all women face in their professional and personal lives. I hear stories every time I lead a workshop with women about the perils of being bright, articulate and ambitious. I often say, “It’s 2016, why must we still hide our brilliance? Or speak in a certain way? Or work harder? Or behave in a prescribed manner?”
Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard’s Kennedy School* has extensively researched the difficulties that women have in negotiation. She has found that if a woman asks for something for herself, she is seen as overly aggressive by both men and women. However, if she uses the language of “we”, she is seen as collaborative and amenable.
I’ve been helping women find the best inclusive language to use for successful interactions. For example, “Let’s figure out how to do this together”; “In order for me to do my best work for the good of the organization…”; “I’ve been talking with the group and they suggest that we…”
You have learned how to do this well. Your language in speeches and debates is focused on “we”, which is very different from the “I” language of your opponent. You began the third and final debate with these questions, “What kind of country are we going to be? What kind of opportunities will we provide for our citizens?”, and ended your concession speech with this hope, “If we stand together and work together with respect for our differences, strength in our convictions and love for this nation, our best days are still ahead of us.”
And you have learned how to smile. Again, I ask, “Why do we women need to be so pleasant all the time? It’s 2016!” Remember the criticism leveled at you that you never smiled? Why should that matter? Men don’t have to smile to be heard. Or to be voted into office. In fact, a snarl or a grimace seems to have worked yesterday.
But the evidence is overwhelming that, for women, being “relentlessly pleasant” both in our language and demeanor is the only way to move closer to, and eventually through, the glass ceiling. You have mastered both by creating a presence that is engaging and warm, with your eyes sparkling and your face positive and gracious.
You have also mastered the ability to hold steady through a barrage of cruel insults. You kept yourself physically open during the debates, seemingly unflappable on the outside, although I can imagine how enraged you may have been internally. Your shoulders stayed relaxed, your gestures spacious, and you remained calm and clear through the inanity. We can all take a lesson from your ability to weather the attacks with such seeming ease.
Which you only could have done with thorough preparation. It was obvious that you knew the ramifications, implications and history of every issue on the table. It was crystal clear that you had taken the time to frame your responses to every question. The depth of your preparation was astonishing and absolutely essential to your progress. But why wasn’t it enough, I wonder. Why did our country chose someone who is woefully under prepared to take the helm? I can only respond to those questions with the answer that you are a woman.
My final point: persistence. I teach women that negotiations are a “ten act play.” We plant the seed, we nurture the conversation, we engage the common purpose, we get our allies in place, we debrief our failures. And we come back. If we see the process as a single scene, if we hear “no” as “no”, we are done for. We need to think creatively about the next steps.
Your lifelong dedication to the women of the world is a testament to your persistence. You have been a beacon for many of us, from your “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies” days, to your battle for health care coverage, to your public response to your husband’s failings. You have persisted through the 2008 primary loss, through 9/11, through the eleven hours of Bengazi grilling, through this grueling election season.
I can’t begin to think of how you must be feeling today. The exhaustion and frustration, let alone fear for our country. Did you bawl your eyes out last night like many people I know did? Was there any consolation?
My hope, Secretary Clinton, is that you persist. This may not necessarily mean another run for president. Maybe there are other ways for you to continue to do the amazing work that you have prepared your whole life to do. Maybe there’s another path to leadership. After all, to lead is a verb, something that you do, not a position that you have. And real leadership means helping people manage the loss they feel when their values are challenged.**
Please know that your achievements look like success to many of us. Re-frame this loss as a victory. You did win the popular vote. Go back to the drawing board and figure out where you could have done something different. Do it differently next time. Speak to women everywhere. Write about what you have learned. Help the next generation of women to rise by sharing your knowledge. By giving a hand up. Keep your words alive: “I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but some day, someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think right now. And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
You, Hillary Rodham Clinton have charted the path. At last.
*Bowles, Hannah Riley, and Kathleen L. McGinn. 2008. “Gender in Job Negotiations: A Two-Level Game.” Negotiation Journal (October): 393 – 410.
**Heifetz, Ronald, and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).