Melanne Verveer's career has long been intertwined with that of Hillary Clinton. She served as chief of staff to Clinton while first lady, they founded the global women's organization Vital Voices together, and she held the inaugural position of U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues while Clinton was secretary of state. Verveer is known as the force behind many of Clinton's gender and human rights initiatives, and now serves as the executive director of Georgetown University's Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
In this interview, which is part of our "On Leadership" video series, Verveer talks about the experiences that shaped her work and her leadership perspective. Watch her video story above, or read the longer Q&A below. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. How have you come to define leadership?
A. For me, leadership is making a difference. It’s using your agency to bring about change.
Q. What are some of the experiences in your life that shaped that view?
A. Like so many people of my generation, I was influenced by the Kennedy period, and particularly Bobby Kennedy. One of the quotes that has stayed with me through life is the one where he basically said: Some people see things as they are and ask why, others dream of the way things can be and ask why not. That has resonated with me — not to wring one’s hands or say, “Why does it have to be this way?” but to actually try, in ways small or large, to imagine how it could be and make that kind of difference.
I was also heavily influenced by my grandparents, who came as immigrants. They didn’t speak English, they had to make their way in a very strange place, and yet they were able to provide for their community, whether it was giving English lessons or building schools. These were people who didn’t have very much, yet they were able to muster in themselves what clearly is leadership.
And then, I have been so privileged to meet extraordinary people around the globe who often risk everything to bring about change in their countries and their circumstances. Deep inside of them, they have that ingredient that it takes to really surpass some of the most extraordinary hurdles.
This really resonated with me one night when I was in Kabul, Afghanistan, meeting with a group of women. One of them at the outset of the conversation said to me, “Stop looking at us as victims, and look at us as the leaders that we are.” I have thought about that statement for all of the months and years that have passed since she first said that to me.
Q. How has your own leadership style evolved?
A. Over time I’ve come to recognize what others bring to the table and I’ve developed a much more team-based approach. There's the saying that there is no end to what one can achieve, if one doesn’t have to take the credit for what was achieved. To have many people be part of what you hoped to accomplish is really the essence of leadership. Leadership is not about being an out-front, recognizable actor.
Q. What do you think of the state of women’s leadership in Washington today? How much has changed or not changed since your first job in politics?
A. Studies demonstrate that as gaps are being closed between men and women — in access to education, in health, even in economic participation — the most difficult gap to close is in political participation. Somehow that sharing of raw power, political power, remains very illusive.
Take Congress: Women are somewhere around 18 percent, which is not where we ought to be as leaders in the world. I’m not saying that women are better than men, just that there is an enormous imbalance in terms of representation.
Even so, in recent months in the Senate, we have seen how women came together across the political divide, and focused on trying to end the shut down and the impasse over the budget. It doesn’t mean they gave up their differences on major issues, but it does mean that they could bury some of those differences in order to achieve something. It’s an example of leadership that women have brought to bear, and I think we need to see more of that.
Q. What do you think is the biggest barrier keeping more women from positions in U.S politics?
A. Women have a harder time raising the kind of financial resources that they need, and it is becoming not easier but more difficult. The massive money being spent these days in the political sphere makes it difficult for them, though there have been some innovations enabling women to be more competitive, which I think is critically important.
Politics today has a very negative connotation and many women say to themselves, “Do I really want to throw myself into that?” They might do it more at the school board level, or local levels of community politics and city politics, but that jump to a congressional level is often something they don’t want. I hear that a lot from women in other parts of the world as well. Politics is rough and tumble everywhere, and many women recoil from that negative aspect of it — the nastiness, the charges and counter-charges. Eleanor Roosevelt said you need the skin of rhinoceros to take that on and feel comfortable doing it.
Q. What do you think has been the key to your own success in Washington?
A. I came to Washington during the euphoria of the Kennedy years, with that sense of asking not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. That inspiration has stayed with me through life — that passion to make a difference, whether it was directly in politics or indirectly through nongovernmental organizations. The roots of so much of that came in my very young years in high school and college, feeling this great desire to be a part of a bigger world where even a young woman from a small town could have impact.
Also in the series: