May 10, 2015

Choose to Lead from the Top

Kim Keenan

Some people are called to leadership; others just step up and lead. For me, this revelation began in a bar association board meeting. Two male past presidents watched a younger male board member make a point from the floor, and I overheard one of them remark, “He is going to be our president.” The other man eagerly agreed. I confess that I was stunned. The younger lawyer’s statement was not one that would change, prevent, or create anything. The most remarkable thing about him was that he was a tall man.

This is not an essay bashing tall men. It just never occurred to me that men predicted who might become the association’s president, yet two former presidents “spoke the presidency” into that young man’s future. It was amazing. Then it hit me: I had never overheard two women having a similar conversation about a younger woman.

I reviewed a list of the association’s presidents and found few women. I wondered why more women had not pursued the leadership of that national organization. After all, we are the planners, multitaskers, and decision makers—from home to the workplace. Genius is not required to be president. I cannot think of any life or death decisions solely in the hands of the average professional organization.

Informally, I began asking women why they had not chosen to run for president. The answers were surprisingly similar, ranging from their perception that they needed more experience, to timing, to simply never considering it. These were the answers of women who chaired the largest, most labor-intensive committees—and the organization’s most successful endeavors.

To me, this was unbelievable. Male responders to my innocent query almost unanimously held the simple belief they should be president. They were not distracted by notions that they had to lead every committee, master the bylaws, or even successfully lead an initiative. It came down to the fact that men wanted to be president.

So I started inviting women for tea. I would say to women who exhibited key leadership skills, “You should run for president.” At first, people were surprised; maybe a few thought I was crazy. I would listen to one of the reasons listed above and wait patiently for the woman to finish. Then I would point out that it made no sense to chair an event, dinner, conference—or whatever—for the fifth time. Exactly how many times can you bring a fresh perspective to an event or conference? Serving as president is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to inspire, train, and lead.

It is a fact that women have to be asked more than once to run for office. Men do not need to be asked; they believe they should lead an organization. I am not saying that women do not believe the same thing, but women take elections much more personally. I have watched men run for office time and time again. After a loss, the average man never says, “I will not run again.” He just bides his time until the next election—and the next.

You get the picture. If you watch enough sports, you know that on any given day somebody can beat the best competitor in the world. One truly has not failed until she gives up trying.

I have concluded that leading means you are willing to put yourself at risk. Not every woman lawyer will end up as president of a bar association or even president of the United States. My hope is that a lot more of us will take a chance, step up, and bet on ourselves.

By the way, that tall man at the bar meeting did become president—he served right after me.

Kim Keenan

Kim Keenan is the president and CEO of Multicultural Media, Telecom, & Internet Council, headquartered in Washington, D.C. She is the former general counsel and secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Keenan is also a past president of the District of Columbia Bar, the National Bar Association, and the Washington Bar Association.