Looking back at her career, Rep. Marsha Blackburn recalled the reaction of one Tennessee resident when she was campaigning door to door for the Tennessee Senate. The elderly man had been following her on a major fight against a proposed state income tax and was shocked when he met her face to face. He even called his wife to have a look at her.
“You don’t look like I thought you would,— the man said. “For such a big fighter, you’re a little bitty thing!—
While she may not have looked like what he expected, by the end of her term in the Tennessee Senate, the bill was killed. The lesson she drew from that experience was that “leadership is not as it appears; it’s how it performs,— she said in a recent interview.
In her book “Life Equity: Realize Your True Value and Pursue Your Passions at Any Stage in Life,— Blackburn writes that the man and his wife had a mental image of her as “tall, dark-haired, and severe,— but they opened their door to a “five-foot-three-inch blonde— wearing “tennis shoes.— This misconception of leadership is one of Blackburn’s favorite topics and it lets her offer stories of real leadership and of women who became accomplished in nontraditional ways.
Blackburn begins with her personal story to prove that leadership is typically not associated with being “a little bitty thing.— But it’s not necessary to look imposing either, she said: “Ordinary activities provide us opportunities in leadership. Everything is a building block.— In her book she writes, “Leadership is a transferable commodity.— From her roles in the community, she gained the skills that helped prepare her for the state Senate and U.S. House.
In a recent interview, Blackburn said that she never thought about a career in politics. Having focused on retail and marketing at Mississippi State University, she planned to stay in the business sector. It was her involvement with community organizations and clubs that caused her friends and family to encourage her to enter politics.
After taking that step, Blackburn then started speaking to groups of women about her own experiences. She was surprised by the feedback she received. Many other women had been successful in getting back into the working world after raising their children or switching their careers because of a change in interests. They are “ordinary women who have done extraordinary things,— she said.
Audiences also started asking whether she had a book they could read or a Web site they could visit. Blackburn decided to organize the book during 2006 and 2007. While she had a few stories of her own, she also included several from the successful women she had met. All of these were tied together with Blackburn’s ideas of leadership that show the nontraditional path can be just as successful or even more successful than the traditional. That translates to her words, “life equity,— a term she coined.
During the project, Blackburn also made some discoveries. She was enthused to see the energy and excitement in women all over the country. “It’s amazing to me the number of women tuned into the community,— she said. “More and more women are developing a career path. It may not be the traditional career path.—
She calls this “a historic shift.— These women have had help from their families and friends to propel themselves forward, but now there are programs as well. In her book, Blackburn found that Harvard University and Dartmouth College have programs to help women get back into the professional world. In fact, she said, these programs are not limited to these schools but actually exist at universities all over the country.
While women now have more opportunities to transform their careers, Blackburn acknowledged that there will always be “external and internal— walls. However, she explained that it is the approach to these that makes the difference. “Female leadership is not about demanding rights, it’s about deploying gifts,— she said. Instead of taking the “fight— perspective, she expects women to focus on their skills and background to advance. She writes, “I am contending that we need women to rise up and take places of leadership alongside men.—
Blackburn stresses with her book that women need to take their natural strengths and combine them with their passions. Then, as she says in the subtitle, they can pursue careers at any stage in life. Women do not need to put family life on the back burner while rising up in their careers. Blackburn argues they can take that time to raise their children and stay involved in their community to take the next step when they are ready.
She thinks each generation will be helped with mothers providing guidance to their daughters on building skills, working within the community and preparing for their careers.