The real power of leadership

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I recently attended a seminar on leadership in Salzburg, Austria. I was asked to tell my story. It was a safe, congenial setting which included people from Africa, the Caribbean, Slovenia, Sarajevo, Bosnia, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Sri Lanka. I began, explaining that I was an unexpected leader. I was not following a family tradition, and as a woman, I was breaking new ground.

I recalled when I first stepped into the red Victorian executive office in the Vermont Statehouse, the portraits of a half dozen male governors stared down on me, as if in disbelief. Eventually I hung a portrait of a woman in the office, just to keep me company.

I was propelled into public life in the early 1970s by two movements, the women’s movement and the environmental movement. The women’s movement gave me a sense of mission and the courage to plunge in. I believed that if women’s voices were to be heard on subjects like child care and education, we had to be at the table with the men. I had caught the fever of the environmental movement at a small gathering on the UVM green marking the first Earth Day. No sooner had Act 250 passed when it was under attack. I wanted to cast a vote to stop its repeal.

I’ve often wondered how I managed to leap the wall between being a private person and a public person. One answer is that I came to United States as an immigrant from Switzerland at the start of World War II. My mother had instilled in both me and my brother that anything is possible in America. We believed her. Her optimism about this country was contagious. Looking back, I think one needs a combination of anger and optimism to step on the political stage.

And, I would add some restlessness. A desire to change things and a belief that they can, if you work hard, be changed. Making the decision to run for office is not a logical one. If I had weighed all the pros and cons I would never have done it. I simply believed – as the clich says, that I could make a difference.

As I explained myself to the group of 20 people whom I was addressing, I made eye contact with a young woman from Slovenia. She was nodding. Afterwards, she hugged me and thanked me It was then that I knew what the real power of leadership is to lift the mantle and ever so gently, place it on the shoulders of the next person. I know that Madje will wear it well. She will rise to a position of leadership in her own country and she will make a difference. Knowing that made me happy that I could tell my story to someone who was keen to listen.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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