How Great Women Lead

A Mother-Daughter Adventure into the Lives of Women Shaping the World


By Bonnie St. John

By Darcy Deane

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In boardrooms and lecture halls, on the field and at home, strong female leaders are making a statement around the globe. In How Great Women lead Bonnie St. John and her teenage daughter, Darcy Deane, explore the qualities that motivate some of the world’s most powerful women. Through engaging, out-of-the-spotlight interchanges, the authors discover commonly held values, behaviors, and attitudes, as well as the subtle, special skills inherent in female leaders.

From the ethics of Dr. Condoleeza Rice to the fortitude of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the enthusiasm of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp and the discipline of Geena Davis, each woman in this book shares the exciting story of her rise to the top and the unique qualities it took to get there.


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One Small Step for Womankind



"Yeah, Mom?"


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. She was even devoid of those little earbuds that seemed to constantly deliver the latest bass-thumping popular melodies directly into her brain. 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?


"We could interview CEOs, politicians like Hillary Clinton, military leaders, and other amazing women."


The more I thought about this whole idea, the more I didn't like it. I could tell my face showed how I felt.


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.

Had the pendulum swung back from the newly liberated, ambitious, trailblazing women leaders of previous generations toward a more cautious view of leadership for their daughters in generations X, Y, and Z? Had their mothers paid such a high price for their achievements in terms of family life, harassment at work, and lack of recognition that many of their daughters were now ambivalent about aiming for the top and pushing wider the doors their mothers had opened?

At the same time, I still saw plenty of women who were willing to scale the heights no matter what the costs. But these "go-getters" faced a whole new set of frustrations and challenges their mothers wouldn't have even imagined. They weren't yet ready to throw in the towel, but they were pretty close to strangling somebody with it.

A number of books on the shelves today have made deep, scholarly investigations into these phenomena and drawn helpful intellectual conclusions. I wanted to do something different, something that would be more fun and more dedicated to showing how women today view themselves as leaders. I wanted to pull readers into the adventure of leadership. I wanted to strike at the heart—at the emotion of the quest. If I could somehow create a book that would help women of all ages and backgrounds to become more energized and, at the same time, better prepared to step up and take the lead in their communities, jobs, and homes, I knew our world would be better for it.

Ultimately, my daughter, too, would be entering the world of the workplace. By taking her on a tour to meet women who were successfully navigating their way around the rocks and hard places of leadership, perhaps we could create a call to action for her and for women everywhere to take their places at the highest levels of every sector in society.

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.


"Okay…" I told Mom. I was slowly gaining enthusiasm, but I was determined to keep this book from being a total snooze. "Do you want my opinion, though?"


"Of course."


"Well, if you just make the book about CEOs and famous politicians, most people won't feel like the book is for them. We should also talk to some people who are less well-known—people anyone can relate to."


Why didn't I think of that? She was right. I was speechless as Darcy continued.


"What's our budget for this project?" I asked my mother. This thing sounded insanely expensive. It's not like we're the kind of people who vacation in the south of France, you know? How could we afford a huge, global fiesta?


Huh? Budget? "Um…I don't know yet." I wondered where she was going with this. So, to stall and gather my thoughts, I invoked the universal parental procrastination position: "It depends."


"It depends on what?" I countered. I wasn't going to let her get away with an evasion like that. "How are we going to travel around the country, or the world for that matter, without a budget and a plan?" My mother does, from time to time, come up with wild ideas—like when she decided to become a one-legged international ski racer from San Diego. I've heard all the stories about her running out of money, breaking her legs, and living out in the middle of nowhere to train on a glacier in the summer. That's so not me. She can also be a bit disorganized—just look at her desk. I really didn't want to get involved in this enterprise unless I knew how it was going to work.


Who, exactly, was leading whom? Okay, I probably should have considered some more of the practical details of this endeavor prior to this discussion. For example, we were starting this project not long after the beginning of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. I certainly wasn't in a position to name a generous sum of money for travel. "Darcy, we'll make a budget and a plan after we get more information. I'm just trying to get an idea of your interest right now."


"Oh, okay," I said, still suspicious, but willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I figured, what the heck? Against all my organizational instincts, I would give it a chance. If it did somehow manage to work, it could be the greatest opportunity of my teenage life.


Looking back, this interchange should have been my first clue that this project was not going to be "mother, paragon of leadership and role model, teaches eager, knowledge-thirsty daughter." No. This was going to be a true learning adventure…for both of us.

The best expeditions start with preparation and help from others. I'm fortunate to have a great group of people who've signed on to my website's "stay in touch" list and routinely give me their input on a variety of topics. This gang is a smattering of friends and acquaintances to whom I regularly turn for intelligent discourse and advice, particularly when I'm embarking on a new book project. Darcy and I crafted an e-mail asking them to recommend women leaders to include in our travelogue. We requested they keep in mind that we wanted not just the obvious choices, but their own, personally near and dear heroes.

Within minutes my inbox was flooded with replies! Not just women, but my male friends, too, regaled us with strong opinions and compelling arguments for women leaders we should hold up as role models. Each e-mail had three, four, sometimes as many as ten names. We were off and running!


"Mom, these women are really cool," I said, surprised after I Googled a couple of the names on the list. Wow…An Iraqi woman who suffered under Saddam Hussein and single-handedly created an organization of women to fight back against dictators around the world…That Buddhist nun who helped AIDS patients in Thailand. Since I play cello in the school orchestra, I thought it would be cool to meet the only woman in the United States who conducts a major orchestra. Then there was Facebook! Right next to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, there is a woman named Sheryl running the whole world my friends and I need to exist. Meeting her would be awesome!


After a few hours, we had over five hundred suggestions. It quickly became apparent that it would take days to weed through this material, so I sent out a brief "thank-you" e-mail letting people know we were poring through their ideas in earnest and would give them more feedback later. To my surprise, that follow-up note provoked yet another round of responses with hundreds more ideas! For weeks, people stopped me on the street, or after a speech, to say, "I meant to e-mail you back about your next book. You just have to include…"

We had really hit a nerve.

Over the next several weeks we delved excitedly into this extensive catalog of extraordinary human beings. Darcy organized the proposals into a spreadsheet to track diversity across age, nationality, ethnicity, field of expertise, and more. With so many legitimate nominations, it looked as if we could write several books. I had never before fully appreciated the depth and breadth with which women are shaping the world today—more than any time in recorded history. This exercise further strengthened our resolve to laud these amazing stories as examples of the incredible capabilities of women as leaders.

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.


Her Excellency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

President of Liberia, Nobel Laureate

From all the requests for interviews we sent out to our massive spreadsheet of extraordinary women, we secured our first agreement to participate from none other than the outspoken, controversial, twice jailed, and almost assassinated president of the West African republic of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. This incredible role model also happens to be the first elected female head of state on the continent of Africa and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."

The bad news, though, as we took our first wobbly steps forward on our mother-daughter leadership venture, was that a pair of plane tickets to Liberia was never going to fit into the "reasonably priced airfare" disclaimer I made to Darcy. Europe? No problem. South America? Maybe. But even a couple of super-saver coach seats to Africa would have used up the entire book advance. So we settled for a phone interview rather than pass up the opportunity. It would be okay to interview one of our featured women via telephone; we just wouldn't make it a habit.

From the moment we booked the appointment, Darcy was a bundle of energy. We both scoured anything published about President Johnson Sirleaf, as well as scads of literature on Liberia and its extraordinary history. We totally immersed ourselves in research about this extraordinary woman. We read her book, This Child Will Be Great, cover to cover. As we turned page after fascinating page, we scratched yellow highlights over all the exciting parts—which gave our copy roughly the appearance of a lemon meringue pie that was heavy on the lemon. To discover the rich details of President Johnson Sirleaf's incredible history, from an abusive marriage straight out of high school to facing down firing squads as a politician, left us completely in awe. We even got some great insights into her life from our online gang of friends and colleagues. Finally, one warm summer afternoon, Darcy and I sat down together to make a list of the questions to ask.

"I really want to ask her: How do you respond to critics?" Darcy jumped right in. "I know I worry about being criticized when I am heading up a group. But maybe we should say: When do you believe your critics? or Do you ever take criticism to heart?"

Darcy's hot pink gel pen instantly filled every line of the tablet in front of her as she wrote, crossed out, and rewrote as fast as she could talk. I tried to be patient with her obsessive wordsmithing, but after spending fifteen minutes on each of the first two questions, I had to say, "Don't agonize so much about the exact wording or the order of the questions. The conversation will flow in its own direction. Try to stay attentive and listen to what she is saying. She could bring up an idea that makes you want to ask something we didn't plan at all." I was afraid we were losing focus on the big picture. As a veteran of this sort of interchange, and far more confident about how the call would go, I did my best to instill a sense of calm and confidence in my agitated daughter.

I took the tablet and wrote: How do we encourage more young women to be leaders despite the challenges?

"I think it should be 'young women with doubts to take on leadership roles,'" Darcy insisted, pulling the paper back.

I couldn't believe she felt she had to reword my questions, too! It was making me crazy.


I wanted everything about this first foray to be perfect. I could feel in the pit of my stomach how nervous I was. Maybe it would be easier on the phone than in person, I told myself. But I still wondered how all this was supposed to work. When you call the president of Liberia, does she just pick up the phone? It seemed crazy that we were going to talk to the head of an entire country.

Never having done this before, I focused all my energy on what I could understand and control: wording the questions to the best of my ability. I thought we should try to sound like we were polished experts and that wording the questions carefully would help with that. I made up our very first question list, neatly typed it, and organized it into categories. I finally felt prepared when I printed it out. It spanned three single-spaced pages starting with: How do you define leadership? and ending with: What do you find most rewarding about being the President of Liberia?

When the actual day arrived, I took the morning off from school so that Mom and I could make the call together from home. It felt a little like cheating to be out of school when I wasn't sick, but this was really important. I began to feel the scope of what we were about to do—not just today, but with this whole project.

I was still worrying, too—especially about how we would record the interview. We'd purchased a pair of digital recorders (one primary and one for backup) to use at our in-person meetings, but they didn't have a mechanism for jacking in to pick up both sides of a phone conversation.

"Don't worry, honey," Mom had told me with an easy smile. "We can use Old Reliable, the cassette tape recorder I used for the interviews in my last three books. It has a special plug that hooks directly into the phone line. It works great." Smiling fondly, she patted the antique black plastic RadioShack box that had been her trusty companion through interviews with people like Edie Falco, Barbara Bush, and Amy Grant.

I stared at this clunky looking gadget. "Old Reliable" was ancient technology. Fatter and heavier than an iPad or even a notebook computer, it was at least ten times the size of our sleek, new digital recorders. Those cassette tapes inside it seemed so fragile—easily ruined by water damage or breakage. You can't even upload them to a computer to back up the recordings! But Mom made one of those parental-authority rulings. She pushed aside "high tech" and stuck us with "good-bye tech."


Those tiny little digital devices made me uncomfortable. Barely bigger than a cigarette lighter, they seemed so dainty and insubstantial. You can't see where the interview is stored. I like to watch the wheels turn inside the tape player so I know the thing is actually recording. It feels good to pull the cassette out afterward, and label it to save for later. It's something you can physically hold in your hand. You know you have the interview.

I got a little misty-eyed as I inserted four fresh D batteries into the plastic container on the back of my old pal, and connected the phone jack wire to her side. I peeled the plastic film off a brand-new cassette tape, labeled it carefully, and heard the satisfying click as I loaded it into the slot and closed the lid. I tested the recording. Twice. I smiled my most satisfactory smile. It worked beautifully—just like always.

"See?" I said to Darcy, "Just 'cause it doesn't have any 'apps' or an LED display doesn't make it a dinosaur. Now, are you ready to dial Liberia?"


I checked my notes and pens, and gave Mom an enthusiastic thumbs-up. I felt a bit shaky inside, but excited. This was our maiden voyage together, and I still wasn't sure what to expect.


I winked to my daughter and dialed the impossibly long series of numbers it takes to access a foreign country. We had decided against using the speakerphone, so instead we sat next to each other, each of us holding her own handset. Simultaneously, we heard the familiar, yet still unusual, "blip-blip" ringing signal of an international telephone interchange.

"The number you have dialed is not in service. Please hang up and try again…"

My heart began to beat faster as I frantically double-checked the number. I dialed again, carefully examining each digit on the page.

"The number you have dialed is not in service. Please hang up and try again…"

Oh, no!


Whoa! My heart skipped about a dozen beats. What the heck was going on? Mom was moving around way too fast, and I had no idea what was happening. Is this going to work? Is there something weird about the phone system in Liberia we don't know about? Does this kind of stuff always happen?


I raced over to my computer and pulled up an e-mail from the president's assistant. There was another phone number there at the bottom. I added the international access code and the country code to the number on the e-mail signature and slowly punched in the numbers. And prayed.

Blip-blip. Blip-blip. Blip-blip…click!

"Office of the President," finally came the heavily accented answer.

"This is Bonnie St. John and Darcy Deane. We have an appointment to talk with President Johnson Sirleaf…?" My voice trailed up at the end, like it always does when I'm nervous.

"One moment please."

Darcy looked at me in wide-eyed panic, jumped up from the table, and ran into her room! I thought, Oh, great. She's overcome with stage fright and she's losing it.


This deafening, reverberating echo was emitting from our phones. My handset was too close to Mom's and the signal was feeding back. Suddenly the already questionable international connection became almost inaudible. I grabbed my notes and sprinted to my bedroom to put as much distance between our two phone units as possible. "I'm still here, Mom," I said quietly so she wouldn't think I had abandoned her.


"This is President Johnson Sirleaf." Her elegant voice filled my ears.

"Hello, Madam President. This is Bonnie St. John, and I'm on the phone with my daughter, Darcy…"



  • "Bonnie is one of the five most inspiring women in America."—Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News
  • "Bonnie St. John has, against all odds, found great joy in her life. And rather than hoarding it...she generously shares the treasure."—Jeannette Walls, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle
  • "With all the things we have to worry about in the world today--terrorists, the crises on Wall Street, and global warming-- Live Your Joy leaves you feeling stronger, more resilient, and more energized so you can feel in charge of your life."—Joan Lunden, author and TV personality
  • "Bonnie's life is proof that we can all be happy no matter what. Read Live Your Joy to walk a while alongside her and learn how to do it."—Marci Shimoff, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Happy for No Reason
  • "Despite personal setbacks in life, Bonnie St. John exudes joy. She has learned firsthand that when we try to do everything in our own strength, we may reach our goals--but often at the expense of relationships or our own physical well-being. When Bonnie allowed God to be her center, she found joy unspeakable...Read this book and experience that same zest for living!" (on Live Your Joy)—James Robison, founder and president, LIFE Outreach International
  • "LIVE YOUR JOY is a must-read for anyone who needs a lift from the inside out. Bonnie St. John will set you on the path to joyful living and show you how to stay on course with her inspirational insights."—Michelle McKinney Hammond, author of How to Make Life Work
  • "Feeling down? Pick up LIVE YOUR JOY! So important in challenging times...these wonderful stories certainly helped me find my joy!"—Ronna Lichtenberg, author of Pitch Like a Girl

On Sale
Apr 24, 2012
Page Count
352 pages
Center Street

Bonnie St. John

About the Author

Despite having her right leg amputated at age five, Bonnie St. John became the first African-American ever to win medals in Winter Olympic competition, taking home a silver and two bronze medals at the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

Bonnie graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard, earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and served in the White House as a Director of the National Economic Council. She has been featured extensively in both national and international media. NBC Nightly News called Bonnie, “One of the five most inspiring women in America.”
Allen P. Haines has served as CEO of several high-growth, mid-sized creative marketing companies in the movie and television industries. In 2010, he cofounded The Blue Circle Leadership Institute where he is instrumental in the creation and distribution of a variety of highly successful leadership training programs across dozens of industries.

Learn more about this author