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Nancy Pelosi’s Leadership Lessons for Bossy Girls Everywhere

This week in Washington will matter much more than a TED Talk on how we beat down women who lead

Nancy Pelosi speaks to kids during Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day in April. Her current quest for the speaker’s gavel is a master class in getting things done, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Nancy Pelosi speaks to kids during Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day in April. Her current quest for the speaker’s gavel is a master class in getting things done, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s hard to look away when Nancy Pelosi is whipping her caucus in a leadership race. It’s like watching a lion drag down an antelope twice its size or a slow-motion shark attack. Even though you think you know how it ends, the sheer power on display keeps you watching.

Take last week, after 16 Democrats announced that they would oppose Pelosi for speaker — just enough opposition to kill her bid. Within hours, her operation went about knocking the naysayers down one by one, along with Pelosi’s only announced challenger, Rep. Marcia Fudge, who dropped her bid after Pelosi re-started a dormant subcommittee on voting rights and put Fudge in charge of it. There are still murmurings of discontent in this corner or that, but the momentum seems to have shifted perceptibly to a second Pelosi speakership through a combination of Pelosi-sponsored sweeteners, tightening screws, and sheer force of will.

No matter how the vote ends in the Democratic caucus Wednesday, we will have never seen a woman in politics, or maybe anywhere on the American stage, so publicly and so relentlessly go about getting what she wants. In a country with an entire cottage industry encouraging supposedly unconfident women to stand up for themselves, Pelosi’s second quest for the speaker’s gavel offers real-time lessons in leadership from a woman who has been at the top and wants to go there again, at 78 years old, no less. No matter your politics, this is how it’s done.

Watch: Pelosi Talks Midterm ‘Wave,’ Says She Has Votes for Speakership

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Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. But that guy Seth? Try Siberia. Pelosi is known to reward her allies and find a way to work with her adversaries when necessary. (Think delivering the votes for President George W. Bush to pass the bank bailout when his own House Republicans could not deliver them.) But there is a cold, dark corner in the Capitol for members of Pelosi’s own party like Rep. Seth Moulton, who tried to take her out last week but seems to have come up short. As a former staffer told Robert Draper in The New York Times magazine, “What do you call someone who is 99 percent loyal? Disloyal.” In other words, if you come for Pelosi, you better win.

Be your own best publicist. Like all leaders on the Hill, Pelosi has a large press staff whose jobs are to tell her story and talk up her achievements. But do you know who really doesn’t hold back about how great she is? Pelosi herself. When she was asked at a 2017 press conference why she should keep her job as Democratic leader after losing more than 60 seats since 2010, she didn’t have to think about it. “Well, I’m a master legislator, I’m a strategic, politically astute leader, my leadership is recognized around the country, and that is why I am able to attract the support that I do.” Any questions?

Talk about money. All the time. Speaking of cash, a woman in politics is nearly always described as someone who “hates raising money,” an assumption that’s often at the top of the list of reasons given for why there aren’t more women in politics. But Pelosi’s entree to elected politics came after years of doing nothing but fundraising — both for the Democratic Party and for individual candidates. She broadened her base of allies even further once she joined the cash-cow House Appropriations Committee as a member and started handing out earmarks to her colleagues. Money is power — in business and in politics — and few have mastered the money game as well as she has.

Love the fight. There are happy warriors in Washington, and then there is Pelosi. When I once asked her in an interview to respond to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s observation that women in politics have to know how to take a punch, Pelosi added with a broad smile: “You have to know how to throw a punch too.”

DTW, or “do the work.” This one is courtesy of Pelosi and my mom, an equally driven woman in politics, who have both mastered the fine art of knowing more than anyone else in the room. Although there are plenty of reasons for Democrats to ditch Pelosi as their leader, including the length of time she’s gotten the top spot to herself, the job of speaker is about much more than optics. Democrats in a Trump administration are going to have to outmaneuver, out-plan and out-think Republicans to advance any part of their own agenda. On Capitol Hill, that means knowing legislative rules, procedure and precedent better than the other side. Pelosi’s mastery of the legislative process is nearly unrivaled at this point — a key reason I’m told other, newer Democrats decided not to take her on this time around.

Succession planning is for losers. After spending most of her career slogging up the ladder, don’t hold your breath for Pelosi to rush to recruit her own replacement. Although Pelosi spent much of the summer calling herself a “transitional leader,” I’m told that was meant to signal to Rep. Steny Hoyer and other top Democrats that it will be her, not them, who hands the gavel on to the next generation of leaders. Anyone who heard her promising to term-limit herself may have been indulging in wishful thinking.

For all of the women and girls in America who have been told over the last several years to lean in, know their value, own it or “ban bossy,” (that last one was an attempt by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to get people to stop calling little girls “bossy” out of a fear that it makes them think ambition is a bad thing), this week in Washington will matter much more than a TED Talk or a celebrity-driven campaign about finding another word for “ambitious.”

Nancy Pelosi is showing what it looks like when a woman doesn’t care what people say about her and doesn’t care what they call her — as long as they call her “Madam Speaker” one more time too.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy. 

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