“A quiet voice done the right way can rise to the top.” –Susannah Wellford

Summary

Susannah Wellford, president and founder of Running Start, talks with Norman Sandridge (classics professor at Howard University, fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies) about her leadership of an organization that mentors women to become leaders themselves. They discuss how Susannah relates to to the word “leader” and how she evolved into that identity. They then get into the details of how you help a non-leader identify the skills that are transferable to a leadership role. And, finally, they discover remarkable similarities between the mentoring experience of Telemachus and Athena in Homer’s Odyssey and the mentoring that women receive at Running Start. Click on the questions below to skip ahead.

Questions

  • How does Susannah relate to the word “leader”? (1:50)
  • Does Susannah like wielding authority? (2:48)
  • Did Susannah do “leaderly things” as a young woman? (3:40)
  • What put it in Susannah’s head at an early age to try to become a leader? (4:36)
  • What leaders from film or literature inspired Susannah? (8:10)
  • How does Susannah hope people see her as a leader? What kinds of leadership traits does she try to project? (9:43)
  • Is Susannah a different leader now than when she began Running Start? And how? (12:45)
  • How transferable are leadership skills? Which particular skills are transferable? (13:58)
  • What does Susannah try to convey to women about skills they already possess to lead, even before assuming a leadership role? (19:16)
  • Does Susannah find that women are more reluctant to call on their existing friendships to help them get ahead? (21:18)
  • Would Susannah characterize women’s leadership as more democratic than monarchical? (22:30)
  • Do people desire leaders who are more collaborative? (25:00)
  • What are the limits of non-partisanship in an organization today? (26:28)
  • Does a future world with more women leaders have qualitatively or quantitatively better leadership–or both? (31:12)
  • How does Running Start’s mentoring program relate to what Telemachus’ experiences with Athena in Homer’s Odyssey? (31:30)
  • Does Susannah see herself as a surrogate parent when she mentors? (33:40)
  • Is there a limit to the scalability of mentorship? Can mentors have only a small number of mentees? (36:55)
  • Does mentorship work better if the mentor and mentee share the same gender identity? (38:37)
  • Does Susannah encourage women to call meetings as an initial step to leading? Are they encouraged to call out bad behavior (the way Telemachus is encouraged to in the Odyssey)? (40:35)
  • Does Susannah encourage mentees to signal their determination to lead, i.e., to “own the room”? (42:30)
  • Do Susannah ever activate a woman’s “sense of shame” (ancient Greek aidos), to get them to take themselves seriously as a leader? (45:39)
  • How does Running Start foster networks among women? (49:30)
  • How much does Susannah focus on helping women form bonds of friendship, and even alliances, when she mentors? (53:55)
  • Does Susannah teach women to love truth? Is it possible to teach someone to love the truth? (57:30)
  • Susannah’s final question for the listeners: Am I [the leader] up to the job? How do you convince yourself on a day-to-day basis that you’re doing a good job? How does a leader have self-knowledge? (59:45)

Key Leadership Insights

  • Leadership that is motivated by a desire to help others (servant leadership) is preferable to leadership motivated by a desire to be in power.
  • Discomfort wielding power is common among women.
  • Having a lot of strong opinions about how things should be done seems to be a prerequisite and an impetus for seeking a leadership role.
  • Realizing that just by voicing your own thoughts you can change things is empowering.
  • You don’t have to be the loudest voice in the crowd to get people to listen to you; it’s more about saying something that no one else had heard. “A quiet voice done the right way can rise to the top.”–Susannah Wellford (7:03)
  • Being open and honest about self-doubt is really important. It should not be an impediment to seeking a leadership role.
  • Talking to other leaders and realizing that they face similar challenges builds confidence in your own leadership.
  • Politics is not about power but about solving problems.
  • Women have incredible networks of existing friends. It’s o.k. to rely on these to get ahead.
  • Diverse bodies of deliberation lead to better outcomes.
  • Women need to work together and “mentor down” to get ahead.
  • Would-be leaders should have more than one mentor, both those who know where they are coming from and those who can look at them with fresh eyes.
  • A good way to mentor a would-be leader is to have her speak publicly about something she is really passionate about.
  • “An enormous part of being a leader is figuring out how to stand up for yourself. By doing so you help other people, too, because other people are being hurt by the same behavior.”–Susannah Wellford
  • Public speaking is not just a leadership skill. It is transformative in the sense that it helps the speaker see herself in a new light.

Works Referenced

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China.

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (esp. lines 669-701), translated by Ian Johnston translation. For more on the weaving metaphor in statecraft, see Plato’s Statesman (Politicus).

Homer’s Odyssey, esp. Books 1-2

Further Reading

Learn more about Running Start: https://runningstartonline.org/

Listen to this NPR story about Running Start’s mentoring program: https://runningstartonline.org/blog/npr-d-c-politics-camp-girls

Read this story from NPR about the importance of “asking” when it comes to getting more women involved in leadership: https://www.npr.org/2014/05/05/309832898/best-way-to-get-women-to-run-for-office-ask-repeatedly

Read a draft of a paper on the common elements of mentorship in Homer’s Odyssey and Disney’s Moana by Norman Sandridge