Book Review: How Great Women Lead by Bonnie St. John and Darcy Deane

Reviewed by Carol and Sarah MeerschaertImage

Bonnie will be a keynote speaker at the HBA 2012 Leadership Conference and what better way to whet your appetite for her presentation than to recommend that you read her book. Since the book was written by a mother/daughter team, we thought that a review by a mother/daughter team was in order.

Bonnie St. John a highly successful author, Rhodes Scholar, White House official, Olympic athlete and an entrepreneurial businesswoman decided to work with her teen daughter to write  How Great Women Lead. Intricately tied in with her many other accomplishments, Bonnie is a mother.  How Great Women Lead chronicles a time of transition, when Bonnie looks to her daughter Darcy as a woman who will soon be leaving for college and finding her own life path.  With generations of groundbreaking women behind them, would Darcy, and her generation, take on this burden of success or is this direction searching for something else?

Bonnie writes “I wanted to do something that could have a potent impact on an alarming trend I had witnessed in workplaces across the country: far too many women appeared to be making a choice not to apply for top leadership positions when presented with opportunities to do so.” Bonnie further commented she wished to, “somehow create a book that would help women of all ages and backgrounds to become more energized and, at the same time, better prepared to step up and take the lead in their communities, jobs, and homes. ” We feel she accomplished those goals.

Darcy Deane and Bonnie St. John
Darcy Deane and Bonnie St. John

Bonnie’s daughter Darcy is the co-author of this book. Darcy consented to this journey with her mother and being a teen added, “I was determined to keep this book from being a total snooze.” Again, goal accomplished.

They began by interviewing “outspoken, controversial, twice jailed, and almost assassinated president of the West African republic of Libera, Ellen Jonson Sirleaf.” How could this not be fascinating and inspiring?

And so they began their journey, meeting with women ranging from Hillary Rodham Clinton, United States Secretary of State, to Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, to Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach for America.  Each woman shared her perspective on what it means to lead, and admitted to what was most difficult about leadership and the path to it.  Often, these women followed the same themes in their musings.  Many spoke of imbuing gender equality in the next generation, such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who responded to the question of advice she’d give her children said “[w]hether I was taking to sons or daughters, my advice would be the same.” Many of the women interviewed had similar thoughts about the difference between managing and leading as being the difference between directing and inspiring.

But, somewhat expectedly, division came when discussing family.  Many echoed that they couldn’t have accomplished as much without a supportive spouse, but they differed on integration of “work self” and “mommy self.” Leslie Lewin, executive director of Seeds of Peace was quoted saying, “I think that being a mom can change the way people look at me.  When I have a two-year-old on my hip, it’s a physical symbol, a reminder, of the kinds of reasons that anyone would question a woman leader. ”

Carol Meerschaert and Sarah Meerschaert

Sarah: As woman right in the middle of her twenties, I am seeing many women begin to shape their future by either actively pursuing the right man or the right career, often sacrificing one in favor of the other.  I found it interesting to see how many women commented that their success in balancing their jobs and families came from having a supportive spouse.  But that isn’t to say that these strong women had Mr. Mom standing behind them.  While some women did keep space between their work and home life, others were able to bring their children to work, take years at a time off to stay home, and yet were still counted as some of the most successful women in America. 

Carol: I worked from home from the time my kids were born until very recently. Then after two years in a center city office I again sought and found a great position working from a home office. Since I’m divorced clearly I did not find the right man. My career was something I created to work around my kids. In my opinion there is no one right path for all, and this book shares several stories so we can see a diversity of examples and find inspiration. Your career and life success is measured by you against your metrics.


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