04/14/2014 09:11 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

For Women Leaders, Individual Awakening Can Lead to Collective Impact

This post is adapted from remarks delivered at the Hortense Ward Courageous Leader Award Luncheon, April 11, 2014, in Austin, Texas.

The Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law has been the source of some of the most innovative and impactful leadership initiatives in law. It's hard to believe it has only been around five years. Special thanks to Linda Chanow and the visionary founders of the Center.

I really should not be surprised that it a group of Texas women who have made such a difference -- and I have one other special reason for being thrilled to be the first recipient of the "Ward Award" from the University of Texas Center for Women in Law. My mother is a daughter of Texas. She was born on August 31, 1922 in Dallas Texas, and was always devoted to her home state. And I always thought that being born in Dallas in August before air conditioning made her especially strong and resilient. A mother like my mother is a true blessing in life. And I am sure she is bouncing in her chair up in heaven enjoying every minute of this.

To be truthful, when I got the call that I had been chosen for the award, I was deeply honored but also a little troubled. But as I talked to my husband about it, I realized that my unease came from being "the one" who got the award. I know the Nominating Committee was undoubtedly looking at many of you and others who are not here, who have been at my side for decades in our push for equality for women. I know as well as anyone what these women have contributed and accomplished. And I am not saying I didn't do my part. I did. But the older I get, the more I see that what my generation did for women lawyers was part of miraculous flowering of opportunity at the same time some truly extraordinary women stepped up to the plate. None of us could have done it without that sisterhood.

So as I figured out what was bugging me, I also saw how I could accept this award with pure joy and an open heart. I accept it gladly on behalf of myself-- and every single one of you who with me made the world where I could do my part. Let's toast to us!!

My "aha" moment about the award also clarified what I wanted to say to all of you today. Many of you have heard me talk about the power of clear vision, finding what is meaningful to you authentically, facing your fears and doing it anyway, speaking up and taking risk. And these are all important tools in the kit of leadership. But today I want to talk a little bit about why it matters so much that we all walk this walk NOW.

As I said earlier, in my lifetime, I have seen the flowering of great women leaders creating a global network for women in the last 50 years. That flowering which happened in many parts of the globe simultaneously.

Each in her own way, every one of the pioneer women leaders had the courage to ignore millennia of conditioning about how women should behave in a patriarchal world. These rules of behavior are buried deep in our cultural unconscious, and both men and women carry the same stereotypes. Women experience them as fears, and as vague feelings of inadequacy for leadership. Men tend without malice to underestimate what women can and want to do. Some how and in some way in the last 50 years, enough women were able to find within themselves the courage and willingness to push through their own fears to be all that they can be and to face down external messages to the contrary.

The awakening of each woman is individual, but the impact is collective. As more and more women found authentic power and passion within themselves -- as they ignored the "good girl" voice in their heads, as they said no to requests from people in power to do things that were not their passion, as they took risk to be able to contribute more -- a new cultural norm was being built. I will go even further. I think the combined release of energy as women threw off the shackles of tradition created a force field of positive energy that is available for other women to tap into. A greater sense of belonging, a greater trust in the world of business and government. The emerging "old girl's network" is to my mind an external manifestation of this force. So is the now extensive research that shows that adding even a few women to the top of the corporate house or onto a corporate boards correlates highly -- very highly -- with improved operational and bottom line financial performance.

I believe that this force field for women is growing exponentially, not linearly. And that we are literally at the tipping point where women will take their fair place in the worlds of law, business and politics. None of us can hold back now. We need to bring our deepest selves to the service of the world.

I want to end by acknowledging the important role good and fair-minded men have played in opening opportunity for women. You have been the best kind of brothers to your sisters.

Thank you for this honor, and thank you all for being on this planet at this time with me. I couldn't ask for more.