Slaughter, now president and CEO of the New America Foundation, previously served as the director of policy planning at the State Department and as dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Watch her tell a leadership story in the video above, and read the full conversation in the longer Q&A that follows.
Q. How would you characterize your approach to leadership?
A. I first started leading when I took over the Woodrow Wilson School as dean. I was 42-years-old. I had led a program at Harvard Law School before then, but here I came into a school with 70 faculty, 300 students, 100 staff, and I really had to figure out how I was going to be a leader. I looked for inspiration to Joseph Nye, who had been a mentor of mine and was then dean of the Kennedy School. There’s no question he’s in charge, he’s responsive, but he’s a little distant. I would describe it as a kind of Olympian style, and it works very well for him.
It was never going to work for me. I looked at that and I thought: I am not quiet. I tend to immediately forge relationships with the people around me. I can’t hold myself aloof.
It brought home to me that leadership styles are very personal. You can read leadership books and you can look at other people, but if it doesn’t reflect your personality, your way of interacting with people, your strengths — and probably then your weaknesses — it’s not going to work. You can trim, you can improve, but there is a core style that has to fit with the core of who you are.
Q. Did you learn that the hard way?
A. I was probably too close to the people I was leading initially. I have become more distant as I’ve moved on in my career, because I have realized that if you’re too close to people you’re leading, if they become your close friends, it gets harder to manage in the way sometimes you need to manage — to have hard conversations, or to let people go, or to say, “Look, this job isn’t really a fit for you.” Over time I’ve actually had to temper some of my natural impulses, and that has been through a process of making mistakes. My own leadership style has unquestionably been forged through trial and error.
Q. What are some of the other leadership challenges you’ve wrestled with the most?
A. One of the most important things anyone ever said to me about leadership was from John Sexton, who is the president of NYU. He said, “A good leader knows what he or she is not good at.” I have definitely focused on that a lot.
At 55, I can constantly strive to be better, but I’m not going to change some fundamental dimensions of my personality. I’m better at big think, I’m better at vision, I’m better at mobilization and energy and transformation. But I’ve come to realize I need someone who is immediately under me who can keep the trains running on time. I have learned you need to be very honest that you’re not good at everything and then compensate for it, rather than hoping tomorrow you’ll wake up somebody else.
Maybe three or four months after I became dean, I had someone working with me who basically sat me down and said, “If you do not delegate, you are going to go under.” It was a classic first leader mistake, right? I didn’t know what was important, I didn’t know what I had to do versus what other people could do, and I was very nervous about delegating because I was coming into an environment with a lot of people I didn’t know. I was grateful for the honesty, and I remember that vividly as a first step toward becoming a more effective leader.
Q. It’s been almost two years since you published your Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” What have you taken away from the process of putting those ideas into the public square and getting the reaction back that you did? How have your thoughts have solidified, or morphed?
A. I never expected there to be the reaction that there was to my Atlantic article, and it means that the vast majority of people who meet me now define me in terms of someone who speaks out about women and men and equality, rather than somebody who’s a foreign policy expert, which is how I always defined myself. Yet I now think very hard about the gender side of virtually all issues in a way that I did not once do.
I’ve spent almost two years giving speeches to probably a 150 different audiences, and I’ve changed my own thinking a lot. I really see this issue now much more in terms not of discrimination against women but rather of not valuing the work that women have traditionally done, not valuing the work of care — whether it’s done by a rising executive or whether it’s done by a single mother.
Q. What do you think about the term “woman leader”? Is that language is useful?
A. Every woman leader I know, myself included, would like to be known as a good leader, or a successful leader, or an effective leader — not with that adjective “woman”. That is unquestionably the world we want to get to. Until we get rid of that adjective, we know we have not gotten to anything like equality and parity.
On the other hand, it is still harder for women to lead than it is for men to lead, and people expect things of women they don’t expect of men. When women act like men, they are much more likely to be punished for it. So this conversation just has to continue until we are in a situation where it’s no longer striking that a leader is a woman.
Q. Pattie Sellers, who organizes Fortune's Most Powerful Women summit, once told me that she doesn’t think we will ever see a day where 50 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. That shocked a lot of people, since she’s such a big advocate for women’s leadership. I’m curious what you think: Will we ever reach 50 percent?
A. I do think we will hit a day in which virtually all professions have much more parity than they do today. Will it be 50-50? That seems an abnormal state, but I can imagine it fluctuating around 60-40, or 40-60, where there is rough parity in business as well as in medicine, in banking, in education.
But it’s got to be both directions. We should not just be focusing on whether women are moving into men’s professions; we need to be focusing on whether men are moving into traditional women’s professions. I would like to see 50 percent of our teachers be men. I think that would be better for kids, and I think it would be better for the profession — just as I would like to see 50 percent of our bankers be women, or our CEOs.
People have to be equally able to choose the kind of profession they want, and the combination of breadwinning and caregiving they want. If we can destroy male stereotypes in the next 20 years the way we’ve destroyed female stereotypes, we are going to see a whole lot more flow in and out of all professions.
Q. What do you think of the premise of the latest Atlantic cover story — that lack of confidence is one of the biggest barriers to women’s advancement?
A. I definitely agree. I can chart my own career as a leader exactly in terms of how much confidence I had, and I can attribute a great deal of that to my husband, who was the first person to say to me, “You should put yourself forward for these jobs.”
It was not until I was 40 that I thought of myself as a leader. I was terrified of public speaking until about that time. It really has been in many ways the men in my life who have given me the confidence to know that of course I can do it. And part of that has been realizing that men are often not so sure they can do it, either — they just have a different way of compensating when they’re insecure. They tend to put themselves forward and become more assertive. I think confidence is an enormous part of it, and success builds on success.
Q. Are you seeing any real change come out of the discussions that people like you and Sheryl Sandberg have sparked?
A. I give Sheryl Sandberg a lot of credit for the parts of “Lean In” that really are valuable for younger women — the parts that say, “Sit at the table, don’t apologize before you speak, be willing to ask for a raise.” I have seen a couple of younger women in my own organization put themselves forward in ways I’m not sure they would have before they read “Lean In.” She’s building on decades of other women and men making these same points, but she caught a very important wave and is a role model for so many, and I think that’s very important.
At the same time, from my vantage point, I’m also seeing more women and men be willing to be assertive around the ways in which they need to be caregivers as well as breadwinners. I see more willingness to say, “No, I can’t do that because I have to be home with my kids.” Or, as one of my employees emailed me, “No, I can’t go on this trip with you, because my wife did all the childcare last week, and this week she needs to work on a big case. It’s my turn.”
I think that’s just a very healthy development, that we bring all of ourselves to the workplace. Not that we be unprofessional, but that we make clear we live life in the round — and that includes taking care of the people we love, be they parents, children or other family members.
Q. Do you wonder whether the women’s leadership discussions these days are getting a little too insular, and maybe a little too white collar? A lot of these discussions assume women have the option to opt out, but there are plenty of women who have two jobs and who are single mothers, and the decisions before them are very different.
A. That is the biggest shift in my own thinking since I wrote my article. It has not been about whether or not my article was elitist — I knew it was elitist. I said right in the article, “Look, I’m writing for the readers of the Atlantic, this is a very privileged group of women.” But what has really changed in my own thinking has been to realize the question of why there are not enough women at the top is part and parcel of the question as to why there are too many women at the bottom. And unless we look at both of those questions together, we are not going to find the right answers and we are not going to make progress.
In 1970 when Gloria Steinem talked about the women’s movement, one of the things she emphasized was that it was a movement for all women. She talked about bringing together African Americans, Hispanics, with everybody fighting for equality in different ways. I think we need a new phase of the women’s movement that really once again captures what is common to all women, rather than the very specific questions about women leaders versus single moms.
View the other recent conversations in our series: