Helen Clark discusses gender and leadership with ForbesAug 23, 2013
“It’s true that as a woman leader you attract probably a disproportionate amount of influence because there are so few of us,” says Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Ranking an impressive 21st on the Forbes’ list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, Clark has experienced first-hand how gender can cut both ways when working toward the highest levels of leadership success. Clark gained global recognition in 1999 when she was elected New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister, an office she held for three consecutive terms. As one of the few female heads of state, “you tend to become more widely known than perhaps your own little country size and influence would justify,” admits Clark ultimately viewed this spotlight as a benefit.
As is the case with so many female leaders, the flip side though meant that Clark also battled intense gender bias as she ascended within a largely male-dominated political culture.
“It was tough getting to the top,” Clark described, often facing intense media scrutiny that focused more on her personal traits than her policies. “People started to focus on the peripheral things [like] ’How’s your hair done; are your teeth straight; is your voice too low?’ It was pathetic, really, and taps in, perhaps, to a deeper misogyny, which no society has really entirely managed to eradicate.” Clark’s advice in the face of such scrutiny: “You deal with it by being professional.”
Clark took this same no-nonsense approach when she was defeated for re-election in 2008. Rather than heading off to the sidelines to write memoirs, or becoming a fixture on the lecture circuit like many of her political peers, Clark ambitiously “pitched” for her current job at the UNDP. She was an unusual candidate for the role, one that would not only stretch her leadership skills across a vastly bigger canvas, but an immensely more complicated one as well.
Tasked with helping to build nations that can withstand crises and achieve sustainable growth, Clark now oversees an agency with an annual budget of $6 billion and a staff of over 8,000 that spans 177 countries. As the third highest-ranking UN official, her ability to navigate and get things done in a political context is being tested as never before. When we sat down with Clark, she openly discussed some of the experiences and leadership lessons that have helped fuel her remarkable success.
The Power of Self-Belief
Clark recalls a time in her political career when she was struggling to establish herself as a credible party leader and potential prime minister amidst opposition backlash and whispers of a political challenge. When she sought counsel from her closest friends, their advice was simple: “Just stand there. You have to believe you’re the best for the job.”
The key lesson learned for the ascending political powerhouse? In addition to persistence, “you have to have a very strong sense of self belief to rise to the end-state in leadership positions,” says Clark. “That belief needs to be grounded on something solid if you want to be more than just a political flash in the pan,” she admits. “And the something solid is that you put in the hard yards. You do your homework. You’re properly briefed. You really make the effort to make it succeed. [But] if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you?”
Be a Whole Person
Failing to build a life beyond a career is the biggest mistake Clark sees women today make. Why?
“If all you can talk about is work, you’re not a whole person,” says Clark, who’s now returned to passions such as cross-country skiing. “If you don’t have a life outside your work, you are boring to yourself, your friends and your family…Keep time for yourself.” Clark recognizes though that this advice is far easier to give than to follow. “I, too, went years where I put politics, career ahead of everything. And I think in a way those were lost years.”
“If Your Aim Is Nothing, You’ll Hit It Every Time”
When asked what advice Clark would have given to herself of 25 years ago? “Think ahead. Have a plan. Leave space for yourself. Reevaluate. Reset your goals….I think it’s important to have goals, but they will change over time as circumstances change,” advises Clark who knows first-hand that setbacks sometimes mean you need to shift your current course.
After achieving the ultimate success in what she devoted her life to, New Zealand politics, Clark decided to take on yet another high-pressure job, one that was in a vastly different sphere where she could have easily been smacked down and forced to retreat. What’s more, she took on this challenge in her early 60′s — a time when many people are thinking about winding down. “Perhaps I’m kind of crazy, but I do like a challenge. And so, I did put my hand up, because I was looking for a new opportunity. And I didn’t feel that at 58, when I [stopped] being prime minister, that life was over. I thought maybe it’s just beginning.”
Clark reminds us that there are always going to be plenty of “plan B’s” in life. “Don’t just drift through life…If your aim is nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.