As more women step into leadership roles, trailblazers of yore and leaders of today continue to wield influence and offer inspiration as role models.
"I tried to be a better and wiser person, learning from past mistakes and past successes of all kinds of people in many different cultures," says Sue Stewart, senior vice president and general counsel at the University of Rochester, the only female vice president at the university.
Stewart, who received the Athena Award in 2000 and was the first female managing partner at Nixon Peabody LLP, notes the influence of her own role models. She says she admires the wisdom, leadership traits, theories and tactics of Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Aristotle, Lao Tse, Marcus Aurelius, Susan B. Anthony, John and Abigail Adams, George Washington and Harry Truman.
She respects them for "meeting challenges and finding solutions to allow people to move ahead and gain insight at the same time," she says.
Stewart is not alone in experiencing how significant role models can be. Dawn Borgeest, senior vice president and chief corporate affairs officer for the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc., lists Susan B. Anthony and Katharine Graham as her sources of inspiration.
"How can you go wrong with Susan B. Anthony’s ‘failure is impossible’ attitude or even Katharine Graham’s wild success in a tough business while showing the naysayers that underestimating anyone’s ability is dangerous?" Borgeest says.
Sharon Stiller, partner and director of the employment law practice at Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Greenberg, Formato & Einiger LLP, shares a similar sentiment. Her inspiration comes from people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who would have been a lawyer if women were permitted to be lawyers at that time, Stiller says.
"Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an intellectual when it was not popular to be one, and an equal partner with her husband," she says. "Because she did not have the mobility that Susan B. Anthony did because of her family obligations, she was the ‘brains’ behind the movement.
"She also had tremendous intellectual curiosity and refused to take ‘no’ for an answer."
Stiller, who has been a finalist for the Athena Award five times, says experience has shown her that having a role model can be crucial in a life.
"I do think that it is important for everyone to have role models. That is why it is important for there to be women lawyers and judges (and a woman president someday)," she says.
Pioneers have had an important impact in Borgeest’s life as well.
"I can’t imagine my journey without the benefit of a variety of role models. Each one brings unmeasured depth to my perspectives," says Borgeest, a past Athena finalist.
In addition to the impact role models have had, having a torchbearer also has contributed to fostering leadership within the Rochester community.
"Both (Anthony and Graham) had an unblinking tenacity to accomplish what they believed in," Borgeest says. "When you work in complex arenas, like community-level change and collaboration, that kind of focus, unrelenting commitment and steadfast agility is critical to advancing the work."
For Stewart, her position among senior leaders at UR has given her an opportunity to examine the results of a mix of leadership styles, she says.
"It has reinforced my growing conclusion that leadership matters much more than most people think," Stewart says. "It would be good to have more women in leadership positions, not because women would lead differently, but because it is a terrible waste for society not to tap the talents of all its members."
Stewart believes it is beneficial to have role models and mentors. While Stiller says even though people can make it without role models, she also agrees that leaders are still helpful because they can change the world. Being a role model is more than being a picture on a wall; it has to do with helping others, she adds.
"Elizabeth Cady Stanton has made me realize nothing is out of reach and how important it is to work hard," Stiller says. "I realize the power of words, and she (Stanton) changed society with words.
"So much of my profession is words, and an important lesson to everyone is: Words and what you say to people makes a difference."
Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, has inspired Jennifer Leonard, president and executive director of the Rochester Area Community Foundation. The 2010 Athena Award recipient, Leonard notes how Edelman advocates for the nation’s children and created systems to change policies on their behalf.
As president of the Community Foundation, Leonard has been influenced by her role model. She mentions feeling honored to advocate on behalf of this region’s children, the future of the area, by working on long-term system change and advocacy rather than just meeting short-term needs.
"As a women’s college graduate, I learned early that women could run anything," Leonard says. "More recently, I have come to appreciate the diversity of approaches used by both women and men to lead."
She also emphasizes advice for young professionals venturing into any field.
"Learn your business and work hard," Leonard says. "Be analytical and positive. Share credit, but don’t be afraid to self-promote. Value human relationships in work and networks; they will carry you far."
Along with Leonard, Stewart also contributes to giving advice to up-and-coming professionals.
"Be thoughtful and observant," she says. "You can learn from history, from older and more experienced people, from contemporaries and from people younger than you."
Adds Stewart: "You can learn from leaders in history and from writers of books on leadership. Work hard, be kind and always look on the sunny side of life-be optimistic. Believe you and others can achieve great things and, assuming you also work at it diligently, you will." ï®
Crystal Gulian is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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