This Women’s History Month, as I think about the leaders who have come before, I am incredibly grateful for the challenges they overcame to pave the way for women leaders of today and tomorrow. I wonder what women like Cincinnati’s civil rights pioneer, Marian Spencer, would tell us today as we face the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic in our community and world.
I believe they would call on women everywhere to step up and lead in their neighborhoods and communities. No act of empathy, kindness or leadership is too small or too large in a time like this.
These great women from our past would definitely cheer on the women who are stepping up during this crisis — women like Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton, who is helping government leaders, health workers and the public understand COVID-19 and combat its spread.
Dr. Acton is no stranger to adversity, having grown up in Youngstown, Ohio, which was hit hard by the closure of steel plants in the 1970s. As a child, her family once struggled to find housing and lived through a winter in a tent. She overcame adversity, and perhaps her early trials prepared her to lead tirelessly now.
As a women leader working with nearly 70 communities around our country, I feel a tremendous responsibility to encourage other women leaders, especially as we face these unique health and economic challenges.
I have learned so much as a leader, and I would encourage women leaders in Cincinnati, in Ohio and across the nation to remember three important things as they navigate these unique times: 1) Keep your principles front and center; 2) Don’t wait to be asked; and 3) Embrace your style of leadership as a woman.
Great leaders are flexible and nimbly meet new challenges and opportunities. Whether adjusting to a global pandemic or closing disparity gaps in a community, the key is to keep your principles front and center. Your core beliefs — why your organization exists, what you hope to achieve long-term, why you do what you do — will help you successfully navigate big changes.
Be sure to bring your staff along with your thinking and integrate your principles into the daily workings of your organization. This is especially important in times of upheaval like we are facing now. It can be as easy as taking time at the beginning of a meeting to remember your mission, which helps to focus minds and energy on tasks ahead.
The second thing I have learned is not to wait to be asked to lead. Do not let gender perceptions hold you back or be overshadowed by leaders who have more power. If you have an idea or can solve a problem, then trust yourself, step up and lead.
Two incredible leaders who exemplify this are Ellen Katz, president and CEO of Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and Moira Weir, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cincinnati. They quickly shifted priorities and joined forces to help the most vulnerable populations in our city who will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This includes launching the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund to raise $5 million to help people who have been hurt financially by the pandemic and deploying online platforms to help nonprofits better communicate and collaborate with each other.
Not only have Ellen and Moira taken quick, decisive action, but it is clear they have drawn on their principles to guide actions, which will benefit families and individuals throughout the city.
The third thing I would encourage women in leadership to do is to embrace your own personal leadership style. Do not allow traditional notions of what a leader “should be” to guide you. Instead, draw on your own experiences, passions and strengths to define how you lead.
For example, empathy is vital to my leadership. I have dedicated my life to creating more equitable opportunities for every person, no matter their race, ethnicity income or zip code. To turn this principle into action, I constantly listen and learn from others around me, young and old. I work hard to put myself in their shoes, to understand each person as a unique and valued individual.
I am honored to be surrounded by other women leaders who share this vision. Women leaders currently comprise nearly 59% of the leaders in our StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network, which spans 68 communities across the country. We know we are stronger together, so we created a “Lady Leaders” affinity group to openly share challenges, discuss what we are learning and better understand how to support each other as leaders, and as daughters, mothers and wives.
So, during Women’s History Month, and as we face the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s take time to celebrate and thank the great women in our lives for their leadership and sacrifice. Let’s take time to connect and support each other, albeit virtually. Together, we can widen the path for every young woman to follow, today and in the decades to come.