In their new book, Bonnie St. John and her teenage daughter, Darcy Deane, set out to explore the qualities that motivate some of the world’s most powerful women, from Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleezza Rice to Wendy Kopp and Geena Davis. But how did they even get started? The following excerpt reveals the origins of “How Great Women Lead: A Mother-Daughter Adventure into the Lives of Women Shaping the World.”
I momentarily held the undivided attention of my teenage daughter. Her thumbs, free of their ubiquitous texting keypad, quietly dangled by her side. Her computer and its omnipresent Facebook page were completely out of sight. I had almost forgotten what she looked like without all these adolescent accoutrements. As we sat down together on the burgundy leather sofa in our living room, I realized this fleeting state of electronic dislocation was my chance to hatch a plan I had been formulating for the past several weeks. Carpe diem.
“How would you like to write a book together?”
“About what?” I asked my mom. Write a book? This was a real surprise. I felt a bit suspicious, but still curious. I love to write, and Mom kept telling me I was really good at it. I like writing poetry, fantasy, and sci-fi, though. The books Mom wrote were all nonfiction. I wondered what we could possibly do together.
“Well ...” I hesitated. If I wanted her to commit to any extra work outside her busy schedule at school — not to mention work alongside her mother — I had to make this really great. “It would be about women as leaders,” I continued, “a mother-daughter investigation into leadership styles and structures.”
“Leadership?” I blurted. It came out as if I had a bad taste in my mouth — which I did. I couldn’t imagine a more boring topic to write about. What is there to say about leadership anyway? When you’re in charge, you just get things done, right? Who wants to talk about that?
Her furrowed brow told me I was losing her fast. “Um ... we could find women leaders all around the world!” I said impulsively, frantically casting the ultimate bait.
“Really? Would we get to travel a lot?” I hadn’t thought about that. Heck, I’d write about the mating habits of tsetse flies if I got to go to Africa to do it!
Darcy has always been fascinated with countries and cultures outside her own. Since she was a little girl, she would, for her own entertainment, create entire civilizations from scratch. She designed their social structures and even generated fictional languages and alphabets for their communications. I hoped I was offering her a chance to explore her lifelong passions.
But this project wasn’t just about the influence it would have on Darcy. I wanted to do something that could have a potent impact on an alarming trend I had witnessed in workplaces across the country: far too many women appeared to be making a choice not to apply for top leadership positions when presented with the opportunities to do so.
This project, then, was a bit of a Trojan horse. On the one hand, the saga of a mother-daughter journey could seduce female readers, who might never bother to read the Harvard Business School dissertations on the subject, into a meaningful conversation about leadership. At the same time, if Darcy met a series of brilliant, accomplished women — people even a cynical teen would be in awe of — perhaps they could tell her all the things I’d like her to know — and more.
And she just might listen.
But where to start? How would we make it work? I suggested we do most of our research by phone, as I did for “How Strong Women Pray.” My telephone interviews with a governor, some CEOs, actors, sports figures, a college president, and others yielded great stories and information. I promised my intrepid co-author, though, that we could punctuate these conversations with a few visits in person to exciting and exotic places — all with reasonably priced airfares.
“You know, Mom, if we just interview a bunch of women over the phone and add a few side trips it will be a boring book,” I told her as I tried to stay calm. I wanted to meet these women in person, see them laugh, and get to know them. I wanted to meet Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook headquarters. I wanted to hear Marin Alsop’s orchestra play. “We need to make this into a story that will draw people in and make them want to read it,” I said as persuasively as I could. “These women are so great, everyone should get to know them and truly appreciate their lives.” I wasn’t just looking for a good time. I had become truly inspired by the women. Plus, this was my first chance to write a published book and I wanted to do it right.
Again, I acknowledged that my daughter was not only dead right, but also thinking way ahead of my curve. We discussed this notion off and on for about a week before we came to, what Darcy called, a “simple” solution:
“Why don’t we follow each subject as she goes about her daily life? That way our readers get to come along with us and get a behind-the-scenes look at what happens to them. Instead of just a boring interview, we — and our readers — get to hang around with these women, see them in their natural habitat, and even see how other people treat them.”
Although I agreed it was a wonderful approach, this idea of “job-shadowing” each featured subject didn’t seem simple to me at all. I just wasn’t sure it would work. The risks seemed huge. Would these high-powered, important women deign to allow us that kind of access? Would they be able to impart the kind of wisdom that would resonate with our readers and truly make a difference in their lives? And, I still had no idea where we would find the financial resources to pull it off. We looked at each other, both of us hooked on a crazy idea that we weren’t sure we could pull off.
“It sounds impossible, Darcy,” I said. “We might as well get started.”
And so, we stepped out ... on faith.
Copyright © 2012 Bonnie St. John and Darcy Deane. From the book “How Great Women Lead,” published by Center Street. Reprinted with permission. To learn about ways to help women work their way out of poverty in the developing world, visit the website of Opportunity International.