A lot has been written already about the many identities of Kamala Harris: she is the first woman, and the first black and Asian American, to become Vice-President-elect of the United States. She’s also a wife to Douglas Emhoff and stepmother to his two children, Cole and Ella.
As a leadership coach, I’ve been watching and reading about Kamala ever since Biden nominated her as his running mate. Harris is more than a token to women, Black people and South Asian people. She is a competent, reasoned, reasonable, intellectual and highly qualified leader.
What I noticed about Kamala is that she is a leader who embodies the combination of hard and soft skills ‒ the qualities that, research shows, are the prerequisites for all successful female leaders. And while Harris’ stints as a persecutor, district attorney, attorney general, and senator helped her fine-tune her leadership qualities, what you might not know is that she, too, had to work hard to overcome certain behaviours and beliefs that held her back — just like other women rising up the ladder.
Below I have distilled the key lessons in leadership all women can learn from Kamala Harris.
Are you pressed for time? Here is the shortlist of 5 lessons you can learn from Kamala Harris to build up your leadership. If you have more time, I elaborate each lesson in detail below.
- Connect your ambition to your bigger “why”, your purpose in life.
- Use the power of your voice to stand up for your values and to make a difference.
- Speak well about yourself.
- Develop your leadership gravitas:
- Get into the leadership mindset.
- Set the right tone.
- Establish your unique voice and use it.
- Check the language you use.
- Stand your ground when interrupted.
5. Build your Emotional Intelligence to act with grace.
Are you still reading? Great! Grab a cup of coffee or tea, get comfortable, and let’s dive deeper!
Lesson 1: Connect your ambition to your purpose in life.
Kamala Harris has demonstrated tremendous ambition throughout her career. The only Black woman in the US Senate, she was elected as a senator in 2016 after serving as California’s attorney general. As the child of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, Harris has said she was inspired to attend law school after joining civil rights protests with her parents.
The daughter of Shyamala, an Indian American immigrant, activist, and breast cancer researcher, Harris was told by her mother growing up not to complain about problems, but to take action.
“My daily challenge to myself is to be part of the solution,” Harris wrote in her memoir The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. “My challenge to you is to join that effort. To stand up for our ideals and values. Years from now, I don’t want us to tell [our children and grandchildren] just how we felt. I want us to tell them what we did.”
This is Harris’ big “why” behind her ambition: to bring about a positive change in the society. As a senator, Harris sponsored a number of bills aimed at addressing existing problems, including a recent bill regarding economic relief for Americans facing income instability during the pandemic.
What is your ambition and the purpose behind it? In other words, what do you want to achieve, and why do you want to achieve it?
One woman in one of my coaching programmes intends to become a partner so she can improve the culture of her law firm, as well as send her kids to study in the US. Another young woman’s life purpose is to launch a new tech company, so she can bring technology to remote villages in rural Brazil.
Your purpose serves as your engine, driving you to action every day. Getting clear on your big “why” will help you get gritty and ignore naysayers and critics, like Kamala did, when insults and criticisms trailed her as she rose to power.
In my experience, one’s purpose is best found by asking: “Why I am doing the work I am doing? What great problem am I solving, or what movement am I championing? If I don’t do it, what are the consequences? Who loses? Or who will do it instead? Why do I show up for this company and not the one across the street?”
The clarity about the purpose behind your ambition will help you grow your grit and get through the doors.
Lesson 2: Use the power of your voice to stand up for your values and make a difference.
Kamala Harris wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today recently that criticised the Trump administration for its failures in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. In a searing conclusion, she wrote: “Solutions are out there; we just need competent leaders who know how to listen, lead with empathy, and get things done.” The power of Kamala’s voice is striking. Both as a speaker and writer, Harris is clear, passionate, and brave.
Kamala did not always feel empowered about expressing her opinions. For much of her career, Harris was the only one in the room who looked like her. “The thing to remember is you are never in that room alone,” Harris told the New York Times. “We are all in that room with you, expecting that you will use your voice, and use it with pride and use it in a way that represents all of those who are in the room with you but not physically there. It is part of the way that I approach my work and always have.”
If you’re reading this article, I believe you’re a visionary and trailblazing leader who has not been playing full out, and you might be in need of encouragement to wield the power of your voice, and use it to make a difference in the world.
Ask yourself: “Is there an issue or topic that I have a strong opinion on but have been holding back from expressing myself publicly? What topic would I choose to speak up on, if I had no fears? How can I use my voice today to stand up for my values?”
Lesson 3: Speak well about yourself.
Studies show that women not only don’t feel comfortable sharing stories of their achievements, they actually downplay the wins when asked. This is the consequence of centuries’ old modesty conditioning. Women are socialised to be humble and hide their beliefs, to not steal the spotlight from the patriarchy nor upset others.
Yet to get the job, any job, you need to be able to speak well of yourself. To rise, you need a little hot air.
In her speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention, Harris praised the people who’d paved the way for her elevation. She praised Joe Biden, her mother, and herself. “I’ve fought for children and survivors of sexual assault,” the former prosecutor said, introducing herself to voters unfamiliar with her story. “I’ve fought against transnational gangs. I took on the biggest banks.”
Like most women, Kamala was not always able to promote herself. She writes in her memoir, “I was raised not to talk about myself. I’d been raised with the belief that there was something narcissistic about doing so. Something vain.”
During her first run for office—for San Francisco district attorney, in 2002—Kamala was more at ease talking about the work that needed to be done. But voters wanted to hear about her personally. So, she had to unlearn years of conditioned humility and learn to talk about her experiences, principles, and accomplishments.
Harris learned to share her personal story, and now tells it in a way that resonates with the working class, people of colour, immigrants and high-powered colleagues alike, helping her make a bigger impact.
I am sure your story is inspiring, too. Discard false modesty, draft your story, dare to share it, dare to talk well about yourself.
Lesson 4: Develop your leadership gravitas.
The ability to get people to listen to you, to trust and follow you is the essence of leadership. That’s why, as a leader, you need to perfect your communication skills constantly. Like Kamala Harris, you need to master the art of leadership communication, as well as gravitas.
Gravitas is a quality that a leader exudes because she chooses to say and do only what is important. Having gravitas at work means you are taken seriously, your contributions are considered important, and you are trusted and respected.
Here are some tips to help you fine-tune your communication and build your gravitas:
Get into the leadership mindset. Owning your seat at the table is the foundational step to sounding and acting as a leader. Believe that you have a vital role to play. Believe that you have the power to influence others and make a difference by your work, message and decisions. Do not put anyone on a pedestal. Treat the audience and people around the table with respect and empathy — yet as your equals, even if they’re CEOs or country presidents.
Kamala’s professional experience has undoubtably equipped her with assertiveness and confidence. But you can build these muscles too. Start with better navigating your thoughts and beliefs: self-confidence is the inside job.
Set the right tone. If you have something important to say and want to be heard, you need to set the right tone from the outset. In coaching women leaders to communicate with confidence, one of the #1 things I’m asked is how to project leadership gravitas in meetings. I advise women to prepare by asking themselves “What tone do I want and need to set here?” and then be intentional about it.
Whether attending a Senate meeting or a televised debate, Kamala Harris emits confidence and authority by sitting upright, leaning towards the person she is addressing, making eye contact, and speaking in a clear, commanding and controlled manner – all of which say “leader”.
Remember, communication is 90 percent about the non-verbal. From the way you dress, how you sit and stand, your facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, pace of speech and the language you use — every aspect is important and will either help or derail you from setting the right tone.
Establish your unique voice and use it. What allows Kamala Harris to express her power and confidence more than anything else is the way she uses her voice. She speaks in an earnest yet friendly and conversational manner. Her speech is well-paced and clear. She pauses to enunciate her words with punch. She delivers her points clearly and concisely, so her message could be heard by anyone.
Your voice is your most effective communication tool. You can convey tons of confidence and executive presence, or lack of thereof, through just your tone of voice.
Get some feedback on how you sound in meetings. Some women speak in a tone that disempowers their message. They sound young and inexperienced with a soft, high-pitched voice. One smart and capable woman I coached sounded like a 12-year-old girl. And she had no awareness that this was impacting her credibility.
Women don’t need to sound like men. Yet you do need to develop a unique voice that emits authority, competence and leadership.
Check the language you use. Harris employs language that is non-apologetic, and doesn’t use any softening diminutive phrases women are known for. Start noticing the expressions you use and whether they empower or disempower you. Pay attention to how many times you apologise and ask yourself whether an apology is necessary, or if it’s a habit you need to break. Observe if you use diminutive openings such as “If I may interrupt…”, “I’m not an expert …” or if you add “just” to soften your message.
Stand your ground when interrupted. In the 2020 vice-presidential electoral debate, Harris was repeatedly interrupted by her opponent, Vice President Mike Pence. While keeping her cool and composure, she stood up for herself. It took Harris a few interjections until she seized the conversation and delivered her message with poise and grace.
That moment in the debate — and how masterfully Harris handled it — made every woman who was ever spoken over (read: all women) feel euphoric. There will be times in your professional and personal life when it may seem easier to let your question or point go, rather than press the issue. Please know that doing so is a disservice to you as a leader, and you will lose points in people’s eyes.
When you have something important to say, don’t let anything or anyone derail your message or distract you. Stand your ground and assert yourself.
Lesson 5: Build your Emotional Intelligence to act with grace.
Standing your ground and being assertive does not imply being rude or unprofessional. Alongside grit and confidence, Kamala Harris has shown a tremendous capacity for grace, even when under fire.
Grace is about “behaving in a pleasant, polite and dignified way, even when you’re upset or being treated unfairly.” Grace is a softer aspect of strong leadership, connected to vulnerability and empathy. It’s the quality that merges our heads with our hearts, and is directly linked to all traits of Emotional Intelligence that are pre-requisites to astute leadership.
Kamala speaks in a firm, assertive way, yet her voice and language never sound aggressive or vicious, even in stressful situations. On the contrary, she stays non-judgemental, convivial and friendly. The ability to act and respond with grace is the winning quality of strong leaders.
The key to keeping grace under fire is in building your Emotional Intelligence.
The better you’re at understanding and managing your emotions minute by minute, the easier it will become to keep a pleasant, composed, professional demeanour, and to communicate calmly in all times.
To sum up, what women can learn from Kamala Harris is how to….
Be a leader who speaks up, who stands up for her values, and who chooses to be part of the solution. Be a leader who is courageous enough to use the power of her voice, has a strong leadership gravitas, and acts with grace at all times.
If you found this article useful, please let me know in the comments below and share with friends and colleagues.
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