international women's day

25 Famous Female Leaders on Power

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Here’s something to celebrate today, on International Women’s Day: A record number of women are running for office in 2018. In the U.S., 32 Fortune 500 CEOs are women, three women are on the Supreme Court, and three of the last eight U.S. Secretaries of State have been women. Last year, 15 of 146 world leaders were women, eight of whom served as their country’s first female leaders.

We’re getting there. We have a long way to go. Below, 25 famous leaders in various industries share their thoughts on power — how to define, attain, wield, and share it. Read on for collected wisdom that seems more vital now than ever — from Loretta Lynch, Angela Merkel, Toni Morrison, and more.

1. Condoleezza Rice, Former U.S. Secretary of State

“Power is nothing unless you can turn it into influence. When people talk about management style, they’re really talking about how someone uses power. I’ve been in positions where I had to be heavy-handed, and I’ve been in positions where I needed to bring people together and persuade them … But sometimes you have to make difficult decisions, and you have to make them stick.” —Oprah, February 2002

2. Sandra Day O’Connor, Former Supreme Court Justice

“For both men and women, the first step in getting power is to become visible to others — and then to put on an impressive show. The acquisition of power requires that one aspire to power, that one believe power is possible. As women then achieve power and exercise it well, the barriers fall. That’s why I’m optimistic. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be even more women out there doing things — and we’ll all be better off for it. Certainly today women should be optimistically encouraged to exercise their power and their leadership skills wherever it might take them.” —The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, April 2004

3. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice

“People ask me, ‘When will you be satisfied with the number of women on the court?’ When there are nine. For most of the country’s history, they were all white men.” —CBS Sunday Morning, October 2016

4. Indra Nooyi, CEO, PepsiCo

“Just because you are CEO, don’t think you have landed. You must continually increase your learning, the way you think, and the way you approach the organization. I’ve never forgotten that.” —Fast Company, April 2011

5. Madeleine Albright, Former U.S. Secretary of State

“I have often been the only woman in the room and I thought to myself, ‘Well, I don’t think I’ll say anything today because it’ll sound stupid,’ and then some man says it and everyone thinks it’s brilliant and you think, ‘Why didn’t I talk?’ If we are in a meeting, we’re there for a reason. The bottom line is if you’re only there, not speaking you kind of create the impression that you’re not prepared to be there.” —Time, September 2017

6. Emmeline Pankhurst, British Political Leader

“Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on Earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible. And so this ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ which is being used against women today has failed.” —“Freedom or Death,” November 1913

7. Elizabeth Warren, Member of the U.S. Senate

“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu. Washington works for those who have power. And no one gives up power easily, no one … Nobody’s just going to say ‘Women have arrived and let’s just move over’ … We have a chance but we have to fight for it.” —Mother Jones, September 2014

8. Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives

“When I decided to run for leadership, people said, ‘Who said she could run? Maybe you could just tell us some of the concerns that women have and we’ll make some changes around here.’ And I thought, You’re not catching on … Power is not influence. You have people that’ll have these magazine articles that will say ‘The 100 Most Influential People in the World’ and I’ll look at it and think, That’s interesting. That’s influence. That’s not necessarily power. Power is when you have the power, the ability to make change. Influence is important in making change, but power is where you have the tools and the capacity and the opportunity to do so. So being Speaker of the House, that’s real power.” —The Washington Post, July 2016

9. Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

“I know that for many women, getting to the top of their organization is far from their primary focus. My intention is not to exclude them or ignore their valid concerns. I believe that if more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all. More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women.” —Lean In, March 2013

10. Gloria Steinem, Journalist

“We’ll never solve the feminization of power until we solve the masculinity of wealth.” —The Chicago Tribune, April 2003

11. Mary Barra, CEO, General Motors

“Wherever you are in your career — your first position, or a manager, or even an executive — you have to be ready to stand up for yourself. But, it should be done in a firm but respectful way. Always remember, respect is earned. Learning to read the situation is also important. Most of all, never waver on integrity. If someone calls you bossy because you didn’t let them push you around, so be it.” —Refinery29, February 2015

12. Melinda Gates, Philanthropist

“To me, empowerment means if a woman has her voice and her agency. Can she say what she thinks needs to be said in any setting? Does she have the agency to make decisions on behalf of herself and her family? If you sit on a corporate board and you don’t think you can voice what you’re seeing on that board or in that corporation that is wrong, then you don’t have your voice … When a woman in the U.S. gets on a corporate board, when there’s one of her, she’s not going to make a change. When there are two or three, then she has agency and she has her voice because there’s a power in the collective. Then they get the other men on the board with her who are also saying, ‘Hey, we’re seeing the same things,’ and they come forward as a group. There’s a power in the collective of the group. Men have had these natural networks for a long time. Women have tons of social networks, but it’s not until you get them together, and get them together in the right way, that they give women their voice and their agency.” —The Cut, May 2016

13. Michelle Obama, Former First Lady

“For me, this issue has always been personal. See, back when I was a girl growing up in a working-class neighborhood, most of the folks I knew — including my parents — didn’t go to college. But with a lot of hard work — and a lot of financial aid — I had the chance to attend some of the finest universities in the country. And I can tell you that education was everything for me. It opened doors. It gave me the confidence to pursue my ambitions and make my voice heard in the world. For me, education was power.” —Playbill, November 2016

14. Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Justice

“I have a style that is Sonia, and it is more assertive than many women are, or even some men. And it’s a style that has held me generally in good stead. There’s nothing wrong with being a little bit quieter than me or more timid than me, but if you’re doing it all of the time and not waiting for the moments where you need to be more assertive and take greater control, then you won’t be successful. And I don’t think I would have been successful if I didn’t know how to soften myself and tone it down at important moments.” —Der Spiegel, April 2014

15. Yuri Kochiyama, Activist

“Remember that consciousness is power. Consciousness is education and knowledge. Consciousness is becoming aware … Consciousness-raising is pertinent for power, and be sure that power will not be abusively used, but used for building trust and goodwill domestically and internationally. Tomorrow’s world is yours to build.” —“Consciousness Is Power,” November 1995

16. Malala Yousafzai, Activist

“Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that why should I wait for someone else? Why don’t I take a step and move forward. When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” —The Boston Globe, September 2013

17. Loretta Lynch, Former Attorney General

“I think sometimes women face the very real risk of not being seen, and not being heard, and so that’s why I always tell young women, make yourself seen, and make yourself heard — this is your idea, this is your thought. Own it, express it, be the voice that people hear.” —The Washington Post, September 2016

18. Toni Morrison, Novelist

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’” —Oprah, November 2003

19. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany

“I don’t believe you are simply born with the ambition of becoming chancellor. But if you want to make a difference, if you enjoy putting ideas into practice, then the post of chancellor has to be the one presenting the biggest opportunity of all.”—Spiegel, 2005

20. Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice-President, Apple

“I have learned to listen and to hone my instincts, to be perceptive and to be receptive. To change. To constantly live in ambiguity. How else can leaders today look around the corner and warn others of what’s coming? Only when you follow your instincts and continually renew your mind can your possibilities become realities.” —TedTalk, 2013

21. Tsai Ing-Wen, President of the Republic of China

“I think that the society and our democracy are mature enough to place emphasis on the quality and the value of the individual politician, rather than their gender. Some people will find it fashionable to have a woman leader, but I think the reason people chose me as the leader of this country is because my policies and my values suit the needs of Taiwan today. We represent people who want to have change in the society.” —The Washington Post, 2016

22. Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO, TaskRabbit
I think that many of my lessons have been around being authentic as a leader, being fully who I am as a person and allowing that authenticity to shape my leadership style. I was a different leader when I worked in India with Google. Earlier I joined companies that shared my values and now I get to shape a company that reflects my values. I’ve learned to connect the individual to the collective we are trying to create.” —Stanford Business, 2017

23. Maxine Waters, U.S. Representative
“You know what I’m told? I’m told that there are so many people out there who believe they don’t have power, that they don’t have influence, and what they have to say doesn’t make a difference. I would like, in the best way possible, to support people being able to think of themselves as people with influence and power.” —Elle, 2018

24. Denise Morrison, CEO, Campbell Soup Company
“I encourage everyone — women and men alike — to be strategic about their careers. We plan for everything, but people often overlook developing a strategic plan for their career. Women need to be willing to take jobs with full P&L responsibility — jobs on the front line running brands, services and businesses. You need a portfolio of skills that will help you reach your ultimate career goal.”—Forbes, 2017

25. Michele Buck, CEO, Hershey’s

“Make an impact in every single assignment that you are given. Look at it as how can I take this to the next level. And be confident in yourself. I think women just don’t have as much inherent confidence in themselves. They tend to be harsher critics of themselves than they need to be. So go for it.” —Fortune, 2018

25 Famous Female Leaders on Power