Shirley J. Wilcher

(WOMENSENEWS)–Anyone, but especially any woman, looking back on Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign can take stock of what it shows about power; how and when to use it.

For nearly seven years I worked for the Clinton administration, although I am and have been a supporter of Barack Obama. So, on Saturday, June 6, when I returned home from the convention of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and turned on the TV to watch Clinton close her campaign at the National Building Museum, I don’t think I was influenced by favoritism or friendship.

I think any objective viewer watching that speech must have seen a convincing commander in chief. The Hillary Clinton who stood before her avid supporters–gracious, but unbowed and confident–was also a different candidate from a year or so ago.

In the early days of the campaign, she seemed to be fighting her way out of her husband’s shadow, overly concerned with demonstrating toughness and being “in it to win it.” I got the impression she was struggling to prove her capacity to take on the guys.

Other women–Shirley Chisholm and Geraldine Ferraro, for two examples–had broken the ground a bit for her. But as the first truly viable female candidate she had no real role models and few in the international arena. So she had to figure it out as she went along. Was Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi or Bill Clinton the example to follow?

Becoming Herself

Every time Clinton hit a tough point, however, she seemed to relax and deepen her resolve. She just kept getting better and better as the campaign progressed. She seemed to grow into her own skin, more and more able to be her true self.

Watching her give that concession speech reinforced lessons from my own career.

As deputy assistant secretary of an 800-person civil rights agency in the Clinton administration, I was charged with managing a male-dominated senior staff, all of whom had more field experience than I.

As I sought to take and keep control, at first I found myself being surly, sometimes nasty, and even loud when I was not heard by my male subordinates.

I remember on one occasion a staff member saying I did not have to be disparaging when I disagreed with someone. I did not have to fight back by going into attack mode. I also had difficulty listening when I was busy being “in charge.” This was very taxing and I found that my staff became more and more alienated in the process. When I heard a senior staff member tell my deputy that “she doesn’t listen” I knew he was right. I resolved to take more time to hear what my experienced staff had to say.

Wielding Power

I eventually learned a lesson that could apply to any woman anywhere: You do not have to display your power in order to wield it.

I began to notice that wherever I sat at our oval-shaped table, the male managers would follow and sit around me. If I moved, they moved too. More important, if I made a decision and made it clear that I had made the decision that was the end of the matter. I realized I did not have to constantly repeat myself and I did not have to yell.

The lesson finally really sank in one day when I was debating with my assistant a decision that I had already made. I realized that I did not have to persuade her that I was right. I did not need my staff’s approval. That was enough. It was I to whom the authority was given and it was I who had the responsibility and, finally, the confidence to use it.

That “intangible sense of authority” radiates from within. It does not have to be broadcast.

I have seen other women in politics, corporations and the nonprofit world struggle with power as well. Senator Clinton and I are not alone.

Universal Lesson

In fact, the awareness of power is a lesson that everyone can use, not just to those struggling to climb corporate, organizational and political ladders.

Women, for instance, who stay home with their kids have a certain type of intense power. From the child’s point of view Mom is the be-all and end-all of the world. But sadly enough, one often sees women who don’t seem to realize this. You find them yelling at their children in public, making everyone look miserable. It’s clear the woman’s lost sight of the fact that she’s the one with the power and she can wield it calmly.

A colleague with children of her own tells me kids will sometimes tax your patience completely. They’ll scream and be outrageous when you say no, especially those terrible twos. But if you’re firm and hold your ground–knowing that you’re the one with the power and responsibility–the child heeds you more and more, acts out less and less, and stands a much better chance of growing into someone who respects female authority because you, the mother, have wielded it.

Once we have arrived at whatever point we’ve been trying to reach–running an agency, raising a family, mastering a trade or craft–we have to know what to do with the power we have.

As I learned, no one is expecting us to behave like the CEO in “The Devil Wears Prada,” the 2006 movie about a cynical and vindictive female boss.

Nor is anyone expecting us to mimic our male counterparts, or even another woman, be it Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice.

We don’t have to be men or anyone other than ourselves. We just have to be leaders.

Shirley J. Wilcher was deputy assistant secretary for federal contract compliance, U.S. Department of Labor, from 1994 to 2001. She is currently executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action in Washington, D.C.

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