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Leadership From the Foot of the Table

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It was no surprise to read Monday's front page New York Times article (10.14.13), "Senate Women Lead in Effort to Find Accord" and see the deadlock over the debt ceiling being brokered by a few of the still small number of women who burst the glass ceiling of the Senate. Only 20 out of 100 Senators are women, and only four are Republican women. One of them, Susan Collins, led the way.

Are these women smarter than the men? Or maybe it is what Ron Heifetz of Harvard wrote about in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, that great leaders have often had to lead from the foot of the table. We don't need to argue whether there are some innate differences between the sexes. These women, like all who lead outside the unchanged norm of white men in the US, have had to lead differently. Political Parity, which I co-founded, has gathered compelling research corroborating the gridlock-breaking collaboration and pragmatism referenced in the New York Times article. One reason is that most women say they come to office in order to effect policy change, unlike many men, who are motivated by their own sense of personal leadership.

Rarely having had the advantage of command and control that comes from the head of the table, women have learned lessons from the foot: how to bring people together to think outside the box (which includes failing then adapting), and how to build mutual respect and trust.

Women in Congress have done this by co-sponsoring bills, particularly those that affect women and children, and regularly meeting for dinners to deepen their relationships.

I am not surprised that Susan Collins led the charge. I often worked with her while I headed the White House Project for over a decade. She knew our politics weren't always been in agreement, but that never stopped her or her staff from responding and participating.

Seeing Senator Lisa Murkowski's assertion of independence in her last salvo, "Politics be damned," and hearing her dismiss the backlash she is liable to get from her state with, "There is a government that is shut down...[and] people who are really hurting" gives me hope. What a contrast to House Republican of Kansas Tim Huelskamp, who calls the Senate plan a "Senate surrender caucus." He goes on, "Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger."

N.B. Half of the thirteen senators who worked on the framework of the deal are women. They increased their twenty percent presence to fifty percent leadership. Quite a deal for the constituents they represent.

It's time for our country, which has fallen to 95th among world parliaments in percent of women, to take this absence for the travesty it is. Stop rejoicing when women go from a trivial 17% to 18% of Congress, and call for a true democracy with a rich diversity of women comprising half the leaders in our country.