How would Happy Fernandez ‘lean in’ on the current conversation about women & leadership

    There’s a firestorm brewing in reaction to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, and it makes me wonder what Happy Fernandez would have to say about it. Unfortunately, 74-year-old Happy died in January, so I’ll never really know, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering what ways she’d add to the conversation.

    I suspect she’d be really pleased to know that a spark has ignited a public discussion about what helps women leaders succeed and what gets in our own way. She’d voice caution and encourage men and women to join together, not divide apart. And she’d want us to be brave — brave enough to follow Sandberg’s leading message: to talk about the ways we hold ourselves back and develop the inner coaching skills to move us forward.

    Happy cared passionately about supporting and mentoring aspiring leaders. In June, newly retired from 13 years as President of Moore College of Art, she told me that the next chapter of her life was going to focus on helping women leaders in the workplace mentor one another so that women don’t have to go it alone as she had to. She understood that it is more helpful to be aware of what gets in our own way if we’re to be effective at overcoming our own hurdles; and get on with the business of being proactive on our own behalf and on the behalf of others.

    On that hot day in June, up high in a Center City office building with a group of women talking about leadership, Happy was intrigued by my notion of “inner coaching.” She asked me to explain, and I did: Most of us instinctively distract away from an unpleasant emotion or thought, especially when we are embarrassed or disappointed. Ironically, when we move in a direction that helps us check out of the distressing feeling and check in to a more pleasant experience, we may, inadvertently, undermine ourselves and promote feelings of doubt, worry and insecurity.

    Inner coaching helps people become more aware of what that nagging voice inside may say about us and the situation challenging us. By training ourselves to know about the ways thoughts can get distorted by making negative assumptions, taking things personally, or predicting disappointing outcomes, we can learn to counter the negativity within and fortify resilience.

    As an executive coach specializing in advancing women’s leadership, I have my eye always on role models for women leaders coming up the ranks. When women have access to seeing a real person in a leadership role, it becomes easier for them to imagine themselves or other women in that role. Many of the women leaders I coach have shared how valuable it’s been to have a woman pave the way and demonstrate claiming strength, grace and perseverance.

    Happy Craven Fernandez demonstrated all of those qualities and more. Elected to two consecutive terms on Philadelphia’s City Council, she taught for 18 years at the Temple University School of Social Administration and ran an historic campaign as the first woman seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Mayor of Philadelphia in 1999. She was known to be “soft spoken and savvy,” and, according to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, was “incredibly spunky, incredibly feisty, always fought for what she believed regardless of what the consequences were.”

    While attending her memorial service in January, I was touched to hear Reverend Robert McClellan highlight the many amazing qualities that Happy embodied. “Now this is Happy … promoting the healing of the nations … not being afraid to stand in the middle of the chaos to lead … a community organizer to the end. And so in the end, we are Happy because somebody has to pick up the buckets. We now have to be Happy because it might take all of us to fill her shoes. We have to be Happy because our cities still need water, our children the chance to bear fruit, and someone has to stand up for the healing of the nations.”

    We have to be “Happy,” because acting with courage and conviction is how we get things accomplished. And we have to lead like “Happy,” because inspiring those around us promotes the confidence and resilience needed for success. If we borrow from her example of leadership, we get to take risks, speak up and forge new paths. And if we live in her spirit, we also get to open our hearts with compassion and support ourselves to live more satisfying and fulfilling lives.

    Dr. Jane Shure, principal of The Resilience Group, is an executive coach who helps develop leaders who make a difference.

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