Cowgirl Power

How to Kick Ass in Business and Life


By Gay Gaddis

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Kick Ass Your Way

As the owner of one of the largest woman-owned advertising agencies in the U.S., Gay Gaddis knows a thing or two about empowerment. Gay’s insights are rooted in the spirited strength of the real cowgirl heroines of the 1920s and ’30s-gutsy risk -takers in everything they did. In Cowgirl Power, these cowgirls are celebrated as a metaphor for the power we all have to achieve far more than we think.

Whether your goal is to start a family, own a business, advance your career, organize community outreach, or run for office, it all comes down to power: knowing how to develop it and not being afraid to take it when it comes your way.

Gay’s book and Cowgirl Power Toolkit will help you blaze a path to success, on your terms:

  • Taking responsibility for yourself
  • Building your own competence
  • Finding your assertiveness
  • Designing your own life
  • Building a kick-ass culture
  • Recognizing good ideas
  • Becoming a fearless leader

Cowgirl Power is not about changing you. You are just fine. It’s about understanding your strengths, building on them, and unlocking your power to kick ass-your way.



You may not know it, but there is a cowgirl within you. I wrote this book because of the strength, courage, and life lessons I have learned from historic cowgirls and modern day cowgirls, and I couldn’t wait to share these inspirational stories with you to help you find your own unique, personal power.

By finding and understanding your personal power, you can achieve more than you have ever imagined. As you read this book, put all of the negativity about women’s success, or lack of, behind you, and look to a bold future.

My goal for each reader is to help you understand and gain your unique personal power. Why? Because it will give you more choices and opportunities throughout your life. It will minimize your fears and give you the strength and courage to grab the brass ring when it comes around.

You may ask, what do historic cowgirls have to teach us in this day and age? I hope you will come to admire these cowgirls and the women who have blazed a trail for you.

Cowgirls have a braveness, authenticity, and grit that I see reflected in powerful women today. I come from a long line of cowgirls. My mother was a cowgirl. My mother-in-law was a cowgirl. They were tough, strong people who grew up during the heyday of America’s cowgirl superstars in the 1920s and 1930s. These cowgirls, and their inner strength, are symbols and guides for the challenges we face today.

As I look back at how I built my advertising agency, T3, from the ground up I think we intuitively understood this. I can see it now and want to help others understand how we created a unique culture that empowers people—men and women as equal partners in navigating this thing called life with grace and love.

Thanks to our three children, Ben, Rebecca, Sam, and my husband, Lee Gaddis, for putting up with a hard-charging Texas woman and being inspirational leaders in their own right. Thanks to my friends and extended family for their unwavering support.

My heartfelt thanks to the wonderful people I have had the privilege to work with at T3 through the years. We have learned so much together. You have all taught me the power of talented, creative, strong people who genuinely care about each other. And to the many clients who put their careers and companies in our hands, and for the mutual trust and respect we have shared.

I made the decision not to name T3 employees in this book, simply because there are too many. So I honor you all instead.

This book is dedicated to Lee. He is my true partner in all aspects of business and life. A mentor, champion, humorist, Texas cowboy rancher, and a big character! We make things happen in miraculous ways.


Bonnie McCarroll thrown from Silver
(Historic Photo Archive/Getty Images)


This is one of the most famous images in cowgirl history. It was taken during the 1915 Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon and shows Bonnie McCarroll being thrown in the heat of competition by a horse named Silver. She just sums up the determination, grit, and competitive nature of cowgirls, and that is what this book is all about. How can we all draw upon their courage and find our own personal power to be able to kick ass in our careers and lives?

Bonnie embodies all of this and more. In 1922, she went on to win the cowgirl bronc riding championship at Cheyenne Frontier Days and at the first Madison Square Garden Rodeo. She grew up on a small stage and wasn’t afraid to scale up to the big stage. She fearlessly and boldly performed before kings, queens, and presidents. After being thrown, she climbed back on and continued to perform. She never, never gave up, and even died trying to compete on a wild bronc in 1929.

If you walk into the rotunda at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, you see amazing images and exhibits about historic cowgirls like Bonnie McCarroll. If you look closely throughout the rotunda, you will see words that define who these women were.

Admired. Fearless. Visionary. Steadfast. Dependable. Original. Resourceful. Bold. Clever. Genuine. Skillful. True. Dauntless. Adventurous. Focused. Independent. Confident. Creative. Dedicated. Hardworking. Spirited. Trustworthy. Determined. Honored. Earnest. Passionate. Natural. Celebrated. Authentic.

I have read those words over and over again. They are the perfect definition of cowgirl power. It was true for our historic cowgirls. It is true today. You just need to reach down into your gut and pull it out. Cowgirl power is about taking responsibility for yourself and finding the personal power that is within you. It slaps down the traditional, sometimes negative, definitions of power and says by finding your inner personal power you open up a world of possibilities.

Cowgirls, my true heroines, are our trail guides through this book. Each chapter begins with a profile of a cowgirl, teaching us by her example about her own wonderful strengths and power. I also share my own stories to show you how I found my personal power. And, each step of the way, from my childhood through my early career, and later as an experienced CEO and leader, I give you guidance on how to do it in your own unique way.

All of this unfolds as I tell my stories. It is real-life success and failure told with a lot of candor, heart, and good old Texas humor. I encourage you to read the book with sticky notes or a big highlighter. Nothing would make me happier than to see your book with lots of flags and notes written in the margins. I encourage you to flag things that resonate with you. All of these ideas are where I gained my personal power. Not all of them will be right for you. But I guarantee some will touch you deeply.

The last section of the book is the Cowgirl Toolkit, and it condenses most of the big ideas in the book into brief summaries. Compare the notes you took while reading the book and see which ideas apply to you now, or maybe a few months or years from now.

This book is not about changing you. You are just fine. It is about understanding your strengths, building on them, valuing them, and giving yourself credit for what you have achieved and what you will achieve. I do not tell you what you should do. If you want to stay home and raise your children, that’s great. If you want to build a distinguished career, that’s great. If you want to do both, I’m all for it. What I can give you is the ability to see yourself and build your personal power, which will result in you filling buckets and buckets full of goodwill. That goodwill will create so many opportunities for you so, no matter what you do, you will have lots and lots of amazing options.



Bessie Herberg portrait
(Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming, USA; P.6.0611)

Chapter 1

Personal Power Is the Answer

Bessie Herberg’s portrait embodies the essence of cowgirl power. She looks you straight in the eye, walks in with her hat firmly planted on her head, and exudes a sense of personal style and fashion. While many of the cowgirls in this book are pretty rough-and-tumble types, Bessie tells us that it is OK to be a bit of a fashionista if it helps your career and, of course, if it is authentically you. I can tell you, Bessie was authentic! Her character, appearance, and talents gave her personal power.

She is also one of the more than 450 women who worked for Wild West shows and rodeos between the 1890s and the1930s. These cowgirls were among the first professional athletes in the United States. They learned their horseback riding and roping skills while growing up on farms and ranches, doing the same work as their fathers and brothers.

When the opportunity came to travel, and make the big time, in many cases on an international stage, they didn’t blink an eye. They were decisive and said, “Let ’er rip!” They rode in the arena and competed with anyone on the rodeo circuit. When recognizing the best of the best, these gals didn’t let gender get in the way of a win. They drew on their own personal power and led the way for us all.

As I studied the powerful cowgirls of our past, I was energized and emboldened, yet humbled. They provide just the kind of role models I believe we can all learn from. The cowgirls will inspire you and help you see a path that perhaps you hadn’t seen before. Let them be your guides. Let them speak to you like no one else can, through their courage, kindness and deeds, competitiveness and authenticity.

Challenges Women Face in the Workplace Today

I wrote this book because I wanted to help today’s women, especially young women, find more of my cowgirls’ strength and personal power in their work and family life. I have watched young mothers go through their pregnancies and then face the realities of having a job and a new baby. I have seen very capable women not be as forceful about managing their careers as their male counterparts. I have seen women lose their ambition to take C-suite leadership roles. But I have also seen women who somehow managed it all and succeeded beyond all measure. Why does it work well for some and not so well for others?

I have spent a lot of my time over the past ten years encouraging women to pursue careers in business. I am a member of Paradigm for Parity (P4P)—a coalition of women who want to speed up the pace of gender parity in C-suites and on boards. In 2016, P4P published a white paper, which is a thoughtful list of recommendations of changes that business leaders should make to help the cause. I have attended countless seminars on women’s issues, discussing changes that need to be made. I wholeheartedly support all of these initiatives.

But I am struck by one thing; none of these initiatives say anything about what women need to do to help themselves. All of the recommendations in the Paradigm for Parity white paper1 are things that others should do. There are no recommendations for individual women. The research studies and magazine articles about women’s pay, admission to the C-suites, and being passive and not assertive are endless. They are the most powerful indicator of what is wrong. They do not ask women to buck up. That creates a huge gaping hole in the dialogue. For women to excel in their careers, they need to take on most of the responsibility themselves. By only focusing on what other people should do, they weaken their credibility.

That is not the cowgirl way.

As I researched the issues, I found other challenges women face. Women say they have a hard time seeing themselves as leaders. They struggle with their self-confidence. Fortune, the New York Times, Forbes, and Inc. all have countless stories about women’s lack of confidence. Women’s issues with hesitating to ask for deserved promotions and equitable pay are well known.

Here are these smart, capable women who are struggling with work–life balance issues, issues about their inner strength. They have trouble seeing themselves as leaders. Many are dissatisfied with their senior leadership at work. Many are dissatisfied with the work environment and culture.

My problem with all of this is that no personal solutions are ever offered. The most frequent recommendations are that management needs to try harder, recruit more, and do better training. That companies should put more value on diversity. People have been advocating all of that for twenty years with little, if any, impact. I even read one article entitled “7 Ways to Build Your Confidence” that suggested women eat better and exercise more. Give me a break!

The more I thought about it, the more perplexed I got. Why have women not excelled as well as men in the work environment? Why are there so few senior women executives and so few women board members of major corporations when women outnumber men today in college educations and perform well academically?

At first, I thought, it has to be the baby thing. Women have babies as their careers start to develop, and babies come along and derail the career. However, I realize that there are many successful working mothers, so we cannot put all of the emphasis on children being the root cause of women’s apparent lack of success.

I have been a can-do, confident, and a little outrageous person my whole life. So why did I not experience this lack of self-confidence, when so many other women do? Where did my moxie come from? I just powered through the baby issues. Sure, it was tough and challenging, but I never considered leaving the business world. Not once.

As I worked through these questions, I began to see all of these issues as symptoms of a larger issue. I came to one simple revelation—that we all have been talking about the wrong issue. All of these challenges are symptoms, not the real problem. The real problem is that many women do not understand how to build and use personal power as instinctively as men do.

What Is Personal Power?

Max Weber defined power as “the ability to control others, events, or resources; to make happen what one wants to happen in spite of obstacles, resistance, or opposition.”2

Our traditional perception about power in business comes from authority, hierarchy, almost a military-like top-down approach to business. For some situations, like the military, that works great. But for today’s collaborative, creative economy, it can be counterproductive at best.

The power I am describing is not bestowed on you by someone else, it comes from within yourself. It comes from inspiration, charisma, and leadership. It comes from friendship, teamwork, an open heart, and an abundance of goodwill. It comes from humor and character and grit.

We will not find our power reciting statistics about how little progress we have made. Or harping on lack of direction or mentorship. Or lecturing on what someone else should do. We will find our power with our skills that are perfectly aligned with the drivers of today’s economy—collaboration, innovation, and emotional intelligence.

We will find our power in financial success, profits. Power in imagination, creativity. In empathy, mentoring, leading. Power is there for the taking, and more often than not it comes from connecting with people and offering a hand up. This is a vast, largely untapped source of power for women to draw on that is completely natural, authentic, abundant, and accessible to all, regardless of their position in life.

I am advocating a more thoughtful, strategic approach to building personal power and believe it is the single most important issue facing women and their careers today. This is a new perspective to see our skills, emotions, and intellect in ways that help women appreciate their innate strengths and build upon them. This new perspective about what personal power is will enable women to take on the business world with confidence, self-assurance, and moxie by being who they really are.

When women learn to see these strengths in themselves, they will quickly see that they are just as capable as the men in their organizations, perhaps more so.

Why Is Power Important?

If you understand business negotiations, you know the answer. Most of your interactions with people in your life are negotiations. Maybe not negotiations in the classic business sense, but negotiations nonetheless. Where are we going to lunch? Are we going to have children? Where are we going on vacation? I deserve a promotion and a raise; do you agree?

We all know it is best to negotiate from a position of strength. You can find strength if you change your perception about what personal power is.

Let me give you an example. There is a guy at my company who has invited every new employee to lunch during their first week on the job for over ten years. No one ever asked him to do it, he just did. He had no authority, no direct reports. But by his act of kindness and genuine interest in people, he became one of the most respected, powerful people in our company. He always knew more about what was going on than anyone else. There is an old saying in Texas, “If an owl tells you something, you can take it to the bank.” He earned that same authority.

Someone told me recently that personal power is all the things you do at work that are not in your job description. That sums it up pretty well.

Cowgirl power is about developing what already exists in you. It is not a quick or easy answer. It does not get around hard work and dealing with tough issues. It is not a shortcut. But it is about taking personal responsibility for yourself and not being too reliant on others. It is about methodically building your skills and knowledge so that you get better and better. Growing your competencies is the only authentic way to become authentically assertive.

I am not advocating that all women should pursue challenging business careers. I admire moms who choose to stay at home and focus their energy on their kids. Some of those moms start their own small businesses that give them a lot of flexibility. Many are the backbone of our communities, serving as volunteers across so many worthy organizations that could not exist without them. Still other women enjoy their jobs without having aspirations of taking on executive leadership responsibilities. Many of them have different values that are not compatible with the C-suite. I get it.

Building your personal power increases your options. What you want to do with your life is your decision. I want you to have many wonderful choices at every stage of your life.


Three girls and Mandy, second from left, riding sidesaddle
(Gaddis Family Photo Collection)

Chapter 2

Finding My Own Power—The Early Days

My husband’s grandmother, Florence Chiles, was a cowgirl. This photograph is from about 1885. Florence is the little girl third from the left. The older woman next to her was a beloved ranch employee named Mandy. She was part African American and part Native American. Everyone in the photograph is riding sidesaddle, the proper thing to do, and they are all dressed in petticoats and bonnets to protect them from the harsh South Texas sun.

Mandy took care of the little girls and took them riding often. They would ride out of sight from the house, and Mandy would let them climb down, unsaddle their horses, take off their petticoats and bonnets, and ride the horses bareback like circus performers. They did tricks, raced each other, and developed into accomplished cowgirls. When they were done, they would put on their saddles and petticoats and ride demurely home. They never got caught.

Florence died at seventy-five years old, but all her life she told stories about Mandy and how much the girls loved her. Florence wrote down the many stories of her life growing up that have been passed down like fine heirlooms. We cherish and learn from them still today. Mandy helped those three little girls find their personal power.

This chapter is about my true stories of some of the high points and low points of my life. I take you through them because I want to show you how and where I began to develop my personal power. It is an important perspective because, as you will see, success is not a straight line. You will see how I formed the principles that have guided my life, step-by-step. I hope they help you realize when you reach a pivotal point in your life.

Growing Up in East Texas

I grew up in Liberty, a small town in East Texas, where I learned a very powerful value system of ethics, honesty, hard work, and a remarkable sense of community. I was a cowgirl as a little girl and have always loved cowgirls’ power, strength, determination, and courage. Their values and spirit are my inspiration for this book.

My mother, Dottie Warren, was a cowgirl herself. But at twelve years old, she lost her right arm to cancer. She had always been right-handed. After the operation her parents babied her and everyone felt sorry for her. One day, after she recovered from the surgery, her high school typing teacher called her out into the hall and said, “Dorothy, it is your choice. You can be depressed and be a cripple all your life, or you can put yourself out there and be all you can be.” That advice had a major effect on her, and probably even more on me.

Mother put herself out there and never looked back. Now as I look at her life, I only remember her being unable to do two things because of her arm: She could not cook large holiday meals and could not sew. But she found a solution for both.

She could do almost anything. (Her college roommates said she rolled her own hair and tied her shoes.) She typed, played the piano and tennis, and had a set of “one” golf club. She played cards, taught embroidery classes to little girls, and never, never complained. Most people didn’t even notice her missing arm until perhaps weeks or years after they met her, because she would cleverly and casually throw a sweater or jacket around her shoulders. She was an incredibly strong and powerful person, and coming across as an invalid just wasn’t who she was. Any power and strength I have today comes from my mother. Dottie Warren was a cowgirl.

My dad, Gene Warren, was in World War II and saw combat in the South Pacific. After the war he got a civil engineering degree and moved to Texas with my mom to find opportunity in the booming Texas oil fields. After a few years he opened his own land surveying business, Warren Engineering. He wore a Stetson hat, a pair of khaki pants, and cowboy boots to his office. When he was in the field doing survey work, the Stetson came off and cowboy boots were replaced by rubber boots. He would come home covered in mud and would undress outside and then head to the bathroom in his underwear. He would draw a hot bath and then pour in some Pine-Sol to kill the ticks and chiggers. He’d soak there with his cigarettes and beer and listen to St. Louis Cardinals baseball games on the radio.

My mom had her own kindergarten, Warren Kindergarten. She was a beloved teacher who taught thousands of kids how to read. She was everyone’s favorite teacher and had a unique way of connecting with kids, regardless of their status in life.

The Cowgirl Way

Almost as soon as I could walk, my dad would dress me up in a cowgirl outfit with boots and a hat and a little leather coat trimmed with fringe. He would take me downtown and show off his little cowgirl at Layl’s diner, where some of the biggest oil deals in Texas were made. I, of course, was the center of attention and took full advantage of it!

It was my godfather, Felton Dennison, who made me a real cowgirl. He put me on a horse, and by the time I was six I was riding with him working cattle. I called him Uncle Felton, and he and I would ride for hours through the rice fields checking on the livestock. He always treated me as a grown-up, never as a little girl. His respect toward me has stayed with me all my life and gave me much of my confidence. He taught me so much. In Texas, we call people like Felton Dennison “the salt of the earth.”

My godmother and Felton’s wife, Elouise, was a saint. She stepped in for Dottie when it came time to prepare the big holiday meals. (I still use her recipe for Thanksgiving dressing to this day.) And she could sew like nobody’s business. One of her greatest acts of love for me was hand-sewing thousands of sequins on my ballerina tutus. You would have thought we were doing Broadway productions right there in Liberty, Texas! She never complained. Not once. I loved her dearly.

My mother always said that when you have a small family or no family, you get to pick them out for yourself. The Dennison family certainly filled that role, and Elouise and Felton’s daughter, Ann, was and is like a true sister to me. Fourteen years older than me, she built my creativity and curiosity through fun and games, sometimes on horseback. I will never forget the day she left for college. I sat in my mother’s kindergarten classroom and cried my eyes out, saying, “My bestest friend ever is leaving me.” She never really left me, and has always been like my sister as we navigate life.


  • "COWGIRL POWER is a book about embracing your story and your power. Gaddis, a fellow Texan who built her successful business from the ground up, shares her hard-won and thought-provoking wisdom on showing up and getting it done. It's a great combination of storytelling, actionable strategy, and a fun history of some of the cowgirls that came before us."—Brené Brown, Ph.D., Author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Braving the Wilderness
  • "Cowgirls are the ones who don't back down from anything or anyone. The ones who work harder and keep playing until they get it right. Gay Gaddis calls this 'Cowgirl Power.' Her stories give women a clear path to find their own personal power."—Billie Jean King
  • "With straight talk, humor and a healthy dose of Texas grit, COWGIRL POWER inspires women everywhere to build on their strengths in order to purposefully create a fulfilling life - both at home and at work. The no-nonsense strategies shared in the book for both personal and organizational development are easy to understand and designed to spur immediate action. I'm going to keep my copy close by!"—Melissa Reiff, CEO, The Container Store
  • "Gay expects to win and she does. She prepares to win and when "winning" seems "natural," it becomes natural. Gay creates an attitude that others want to share. You can do the same. Her "Kicking Ass" is so inviting you want to be part of it."—Red McCombs, Owner, McCombs Enterprises, co-founder of Clear Channel Communications
  • "Gay's warmth, cowgirl tenacity, and business savvy are all wrapped up in an easy to read, funny, honest book. Her desire to help women is evident in every chapter. This is a must-read for aspiring and current business leaders both male and female. Her message is clear, women must support and nurture each other."—Doreen Lorenzo, former executive at Frog
  • "I galloped through Gay's compelling book, COWGIRL POWER, in which she shares her strategies and relatable stories about overcoming obstacles, fears and building personal power. I highly recommend this superb read for anyone seeking career and personal growth."—Joyce Russell, President, Adecco Staffing US
  • "COWGIRL POWER is a lexicon and 'must read' for those who want to learn how to do and have it all - with grace, integrity and competence."—Larraine Segil, Author of Intelligent Business Alliances, Fast Alliances, Dynamic Leader Adaptive Organization, Partnering the New Face of Leadership, Measuring the Value of Partnering, and Belonging
  • "Gay Gaddis epitomizes the ideal of a successful, modern Cowgirl. Her personal stories and insights are both funny and poignant. There is no singularly successful leadership profile, but Gay Gaddis' COWGIRL POWER offers a compelling, entertaining, and poignant role model for modern female business leaders."—Lynn Utter, Chief Executive Officer and board member for First Source
  • "Power is there for the taking, Gay Gaddis explains, and through this book she helps readers find and summon their own. Gay is a living embodiment of the cowgirls she so admires and their "braveness, authenticity and grit." Read Cowgirl Power and learn how this pioneering Texan built her own successful business and life - and come away ready to take on the world!"—Karen Hughes, Author, Former Press Secretary President George Bush, Global Vice Chair
  • "As the father of an amazing daughter, who is an aspiring author and entrepreneur herself, I can confidently confirm that Gay's book is an invaluable and much needed resource. The future of business is increasingly female (thankfully) and Gay is a very motivating force for what's possible."—Brett Hurt, founder of Bazaarvoice, Coremetrics,, and Hurt Family Investments
  • "Gay takes an unapologetic approach to dispensing valuable lessons that results in both a delightful and insightful read. My favorite quote: Be aware of people who are intimidated by people smarter than themselves. I couldn't have said it better."—Hala Moddelmog, President & CEO, Metro Atlanta Chamber, former CEO Arby's Restaurant Group
  • "I thought I would know everything in the Cowgirl Toolkit. But after reading Gay Gaddis' journey, and understanding her business acumen and hard fought wisdom, I realized I still have a lot to learn. This cowgirl kicked my ass."—Marcy Maguire, CEO, Maguire Automotive
  • "A fresh and fun approach from a long term entrepreneur in how to be fearless in the face of adversity and opportunity alike. I so love the analogy of actual Cowgirls in the Wild West as trail guides! Chocked full of insights and important life lessons for women of all ages today."—Jan Ryan, CEO, 3Hills Ventures
  • "Equal parts memoir, history lesson and kick in the pants, Gay's book is a road map to help readers learn to embrace their gifts, bolster their confidence, and build the life they desire. I'm excited for my teenage daughter to read this and learn from it as she approaches adulthood and embarks on her life and career."—Justin Yancy, President, Texas Business Leadership Council

On Sale
Jan 22, 2019
Page Count
288 pages
Center Street

Gay Gaddis

About the Author

Gay Gaddis is CEO and Founder of T3. In 1989, she started her company after cashing in a $16,000 IRA. Today, T3 has offices nationwide and creates innovative digital marketing programs for Fortune 200 clients. T3 is a top-ranked innovation firm and one of the largest agencies owned by a woman. Gay has been nationally recognized for the unique family-friendly policies she has initiated at T3.

Gay is on the Board of Directors of Monotype Imaging Holdings and on the Dean’s Advisory Council to The University of Texas McCombs School of Business. She is also the first female Chairman of the Texas Business Leadership Council. Gay is a regular contributor to Forbes, and her Texas landscapes have been featured in galleries in New York and Texas. She and her husband own the Double Heart Ranch in the Texas Hill Country.

Learn more about this author