09/23/2011 05:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2011

Balancing Act: Leading in Tough Economic Times

I remember when Jennifer Granholm was elected governor of Michigan in 2002. It still was whispered that perhaps a woman couldn't handle the pressures of high office, or that the country wasn't ready for a woman to occupy the top job.

Even in 2006, a CBS poll showed that although 92 percent of adults said they would vote for a woman for president, only 55 percent thought the country was ready for a woman president -- indicating that public opinion hesitates on the question of women in top executive leadership. While women have ascended to the office of governor with increasing frequency over the past two decades, and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation's research shows that gender can be a strategic asset, there may still be some lingering doubts and stereotypes about women's ability to lead.

But Granholm's experience outlined in the new book, A Governor's Story: The Fight for Jobs and America's Economic Future, which she authored with her husband, Dan Mulhern, shows that strong leadership can put to rest doubts about a woman's ability to overcome executive challenges. With Granholm's experience in office as proof, perhaps it's time we can put the unspoken fears and doubts behind us once and for all.

Once elected, Granholm immediately had to manage a state that had been the most affected by job loss in the country due to the globalization of manufacturing. Chronic budget shortfalls, a legislature held by the opposing party, and a seemingly endless series of crises put all of the governor's previous ambitious plans on hold. The reality was that Michigan was undergoing a complex transformation fundamentally different from past economic downturns.

As the governor fought for and succeeded in protecting the most vulnerable from deep budget cuts, she also had to make some very tough decisions about the state's cherished programs. Voters soon learned that Granholm was capable of being fair about the division of resources and possessed the necessary economic credentials to lead her state.

Granholm's time in office exemplifies the findings of my foundation's 2010 research, Turning Point, which shows that voters want candidates who are problem-solvers, have the right priorities and are strong.

Granholm proved that women can be very adept at the art of the business deal, traditionally thought to be a man's province. In order to attract high-growth and high-tech foreign companies to Michigan, she traveled the globe and successfully bargained with a business culture that featured mostly male executives. All the while, in Michigan she was combating the prejudices of a male-dominated auto industry that had seen foreign competition slowly erode America's market share over the years. The governor proved that gender did not matter when it came to landing investments for the state. Michigan attracted 48 companies that promised $2 billion and 20,000 jobs as a result of her 12 trips overseas.

When it came to the home front, the story of the Jennifer Granholm-Dan Mulhern household shows that when women find themselves in a high-stress, 24/7 job, traditional gender roles will blend and change. This too, can be an asset for women gubernatorial candidates. In fact, my research shows by using all of their experiences and expertise women candidates have a broader range of opportunities to connect with voters.

Granholm and Mulhern showed that is still possible to maintain a semblance of normalcy at home with the right amount of effort. As the governor found herself dealing with constant crisis in her state, Mulhern took on running the household. In time, they both adapted to the challenge of redefining what had previously been well-drawn gender roles.

Granholm is an important role model for women who want to run for office. As her book, A Governor's Story: The Fight for Jobs and America's Economic Future, illustrates, women governors are uniquely positioned to take on the complex leadership challenges states face during times of economic crisis.

When the world is changing, and crashing down around you, it's not gender that matters, but the quality of ideas and the strength of leadership that will carry the day.