September 7, 2018

Leah Daughtry is the president and CEO of a boutique strategic planning firm, On These Things, and also the CEO of the 2016 and 2008 American Democratic National Convention Committees (the only person to have held the role twice in its history), playing an integral role in Barack Obama’s successful campaign to become the United States’ first elected African-American president.

As a champion of diversity, she has surmounted barriers in race, gender and socio-economics to become a leading player in the fraught playing fields of American politics, and a stalwart advocate for greater equity in civil society. Leah will be in Singapore to discuss diversity leadership for ASEAN businesses, at the 2018 Women’s Forum Singapore, happening 12 to 14 September.

Read her incisive answers to our questions on the topics of minority representation, leadership and what drives her push for change.

HNW: What first moved you to work in the political space?

Leah Daughtry: My parents encouraged my siblings and I to choose careers that would allow us to make a difference in our community and the world around us. I chose a career in politics and government because I saw how the decisions made in those sectors impacted every part of my life and the lives of the people in my community.

Regardless of whether people choose to participate in these systems, the fact remains that where we live, the schools we attend, when our trash is picked up, where houses and churches and grocery stores are located, every part of our lives is impacted by the decisions made through governmental and political structures. By working in these arenas, I believe that I have the potential to help change lives for the better in my own community and in the world around us.

While there are strong and capable women leaders, why do you think that the progress and percentage of women in politics still remain so little, in general?

The challenges are both structural and personal. In many places, women face systemic and cultural barriers that make it more difficult for them to pursue public office, not the least of which is the attitudes of the electorate toward women’s leadership.

Secondly, because of the traditional roles adopted by women in our society, women often feel obligated to navigate concerns of household and family before they can pursue a political career. One study shows that you have to ask a woman to run for office seven times before she says yes, but you only have to ask a man once.

Together these factors lead to fewer women running for office and fewer women being elected to office. In the United States, as women begin to recognize and trust their own power, we are seeing record numbers of women running for office—and winning.

What is the biggest roadblock to the successful representation of women in politics, which you hope to remove in your work?

Women are more than half the population so, by sheer numbers, we have the power to change the level of women’s representation in politics, at least in democratic societies. I believe one of the biggest roadblocks to representation lies in women’s ability to recognize, trust, and activate their power. My work with women of all backgrounds and aspirations is designed to encourage, inspire, teach, and train women to recognize their power, hone their skills, and trust their own abilities so that they can dare to lead and lead with confidence.

Why is it important to see women and individuals of all races and backgrounds being represented in leadership positions?

It’s hard to be what you have not seen. Seeing people like us in leadership helps us to see ourselves in leadership and understand that leadership is not the provenance of just one race or class or gender. It raises our vision of what’s possible and encourages us to pursue our own goals and dreams. This is particularly important for communities that have been underrepresented in leadership, and most especially for our children.

What makes or defines a leader?

I first want to observe a distinction between good leaders and bad leaders. We’ve all encountered plenty of both. And I want to focus on the qualities that I believe are necessary to be a good leader: Compassion, Bravery, Vision, Strength, and Commitment. You cannot lead without these.

Does equality necessarily mean fairness? What is your measure/idea of a fair society?

First, we have to recognize that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not. A fair society is one in which every person has equal access and equal opportunity to use their abilities and talents to create the life they wish for themselves. Unfortunately, too many in our world start life at a disadvantage—perhaps due to economic or social or systemic inequities—and that makes it difficult for them to utilize and maximize their skills and abilities.

To create a fair society, we have to work to dismantle the systems that lead to these imbalances and we have to create new structures that level the playing field and provide opportunities for the disadvantaged to fully participate in our society.

Equality and fairness are partners in this endeavor, though at times it may be necessary for one to take a backseat to the other in order to achieve their shared goal.

Have you personally ever felt pressure to alter your behaviour or appearance as a woman or minority, in order to be perceived as a more credible candidate professionally? What do you understand of such an experience?

In the beginning of my career, all the models I saw led me to believe that being accepted in male-dominated businesses and meeting rooms, meant miming male behavior. So I spoke stridently, I carried a man’s briefcase, and I wore a ton of “power suits”—things that I thought would signal that I was tough, brave, and resilient.

Over time, I realised that those things were window dressing and were actually at odds with my true personality, creating a sort of dissonance within me. I realised that I could be strong, tough, brave, and resilient in a way that was true to myself and my values.

The most important thing, I decided, was that I’d done my homework, that I was prepared, that I was hardworking, smart, and willing and able to lead.

As someone who transcends potential barriers in gender and race in the workplace and more, what are your thoughts and advice on challenging the status quo?

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglas said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never has and it never will.” Change will not come about because we wish it so. It happens because we demand it and work for it. This requires first, a purpose. What and for whom are you fighting? What is the difference you want to make? If you don’t know or can’t answer, stand down.

Once you are clear about your purpose, then you need equal measures of bravery, strength, vision, and commitment. Meaningful and lasting change always takes time and it is always worth the investment.

What is the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?

When I was offered the job as CEO of the 2008 Democratic Convention, it was a huge leap for me. My career and reputation had been built on my work as a stellar background player, the best COO that any CEO or Chair could want. Becoming CEO would mean stepping out, being the visionary, leading from the front, and leaving the day-to-day operations, my comfort zone, to someone else. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

What is your personal motto in life, underlying all your actions?

I have two, one is Biblical, growing out of my life as a woman of Faith: “Commit your works to The Lord and your plans will be established.” This reminds me that my work is for a higher purpose.

And the second is: “If the shoe fits, buy it in every colour.” This represents my conviction that if I believe in something, then I must commit to it totally and completely. Plus it encourages my shoe addiction.


Related Coverage: A Candid Chat with Chiara Corazza, Managing Director of the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society