The Loudest Duck

Momina Aijazuddin on the special challenges faced by women in positions of power

The Loudest Duck
The topic of women in leadership is a hot one these days as Hilary Clinton’s political campaign picks up steam. The prospect of a chauvinist Republican as a Presidential candidate is making people aware that it finally may be time for a woman at the helm of the United States.

I went to a talk in Washington DC recently which made me think of women in leadership in a completely different light. Laura Liswood, who set up the Council of Women Leaders, was explaining her concept of leadership in a fascinating book entitled “The Loudest Duck”. In case you are wondering, the title is derived from a Chinese proverb to the effect that the loudest duck is the one who gets shot first - which shows a completely different attitude to speaking out than the US.

Margaret Thatcher had to work on her speaking so as to sound closer to the tone and style of male leaders
Margaret Thatcher had to work on her speaking so as to sound closer to the tone and style of male leaders

Liswood certainly has the credentials to speak with authority on the topic. As an advisor to Goldman Sachs, Liswood had the enviable experience of spending over 15 months interviewing female political leaders during the 1980s, including Corazon Aquino, Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto. Most of these leaders were accessible and happy to talk about their experiences and challenges. Interestingly, they were very curious about other women leaders and how they manage the responsibility of being a leader.

Some like Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina and Corazon Aquino came from dynastic political families and were expected to carry on the tradition. Others like Margaret Thatcher integrated into a man’s world by fitting in. Most shared the experience of facing undue criticism and scrutiny over their personal appearance and clothing - a case in point being the current election campaign in the US and the media’s obsession with Hilary’s highlights and clothing. Back at home, Hina Rabbani Khar’s choice of handbags was given much more media attention than her contributions to foreign policy while little is said about the ever-evolving hair landscapes of male leaders.
Women leaders openly shared how they changed their behavior to be taken seriously

Liswood spoke articulately about how these women leaders sounded like ordinary women - of finding it hard to balance between work and home; of trying to explain to their children why they had to be absent from their daily lives, opting to attend state meetings rather than choir recitals. Others spoke of the nature of exercising power in politics and how different this could be at home as they had to behave differently in a domestic context than they did at work. So what could be acceptable behavior at work would be modified for home and vice versa. Very few had partners who were public consorts or supportive. Their experiences are borne out by modern research that women are more likely to be interrupted in meetings and are seven times more likely to apologise than men.

The traits of successful women leaders seems applicable to both sexes. One is that of being guided by a North Star or an internal compass - a guide to do what is right regardless of what is expedient or easy. The second is to be willing to challenge authority (clearly harder to do for women in some cultures) as well as to have emotional intelligence, which allows one to understand different worldviews and opinions. They develop skills to transition from being part of the crowd and to stand in front of it and still connect with the collective and relate to people within the crowd as individuals. Former President Bill Clinton is the embodiment of that skill as observers often remarked how he could connect with them as individual people, regardless of their background.


Some of the women leaders profiled openly shared their stories of how they had changed their behavior in order to be taken seriously. Thatcher for instance spent time modulating her voice and speaking in a lower tone - commanding rather than questioning, forceful rather than collaborative - thus acquiring some of the traits people identify with male leaders. This earned her the title of Iron Lady in the media and she was widely considered effective and powerful, though not popular, for those traits. Corazon Aquino learnt how to salute properly to be able to command the military effectively, though she remarked that was the hardest part of her leadership journey.

Another influential way to exercise leadership come through the art of storytelling - on the premise that people identify with leaders and their private struggles. When you see a leader who shares your struggles and journey, they appear more real and approachable. Arianna Huffington, the charismatic founder and CEO of Huffington Post, is a living reminder of that. She was on a mission in Washington DC this month to convince institutions and people of an often ignored aspect of good leadership and doing well - to switch off and get some sleep.

The call for action is based on her new book “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time”. Huffington knows the dangers of sleep deprivation through her own painful experience. In 2007, she was regularly working 18-hour days at the Huffington Post when she passed out, fell over her computer and came to with a broken cheekbone. The doctor diagnosed exhaustion. Since then, she has changed her fast-paced lifestyle, incorporating sleep, meditation and exercise. Like Liswood, her arguments were also based on modern research that sleep deprivation is bad for productivity and that the effects of being sleep-deprived at work are similar to the effects of being intoxicated.

This is clearly an uphill battle not only for professionals and leaders but increasingly school and college students who often proudly proclaim that it is cool to do caffeine-fueled all-nighters without sleep. The new science supports the idea that absence of sleep not only affects decision-making and leadership, but also mental health in the long run.

Listening to these two women leaders gave me several lessons. One is that Pakistan actually comes through, at times, as a relatively progressive country with the first woman Prime Minister in the Muslim world, even though some of our statistics on women’s health and empowerment are absolutely appalling. It seems also that the post-lunch siesta, which is so common in our part of the world. is actually a healthy habit. I now also have a renewed appreciation for how and when to start quacking - and only quacking loudly after eight hours of quality sleep.  n


Momina Aijazuddin is currently based in Washington D.C.