Wednesday, October 20, 2010

First Ladies: Public Servants or Positional Powerhouses?

First ladies, especially in the latter part of the 20th century, have gained a significant amount of power and influence in the eyes of the general public. Beyond simply serving as a political celebrity and White House hostess, women who have held this position have helped their husbands advocate causes, promoted the public image of our country, and served as a leader for various causes ranging from literacy to women's rights to environmental protection.

But the position and the actions of the women who are given the unofficial title of first lady presents a chicken and egg problem: are these women leaders simply because they have become first ladies, or were they leaders before reaching the White House and are now using their additional power to advance their established leadership agenda? Or to use the terminology of this class, are first ladies typically situational or servant leaders?

It could be argued that the leadership of most first ladies is purely situational, that the only reason they are afforded any sort of leadership or prestige is because of their husband's immensely powerful and public job. Though some of these women carry on their adopted causes after their time in the White House is over and remain public figures years after, many could still claim that their leadership after their time in the White House is merely lingering power from their years as first lady.

Is the power and leadership of these women in any way minimized because they gained the position of first lady through no (or at least little) personal achievement of their own? Many of these women were successful and powerful in their own right, but were more or less forced to give up their own careers when their husbands were elected president, and have displayed many of De Pree's leadership traits in previous professions.

Though the leadership that these women display is often ostensibly situational, this label doesn't fully acknowledge and appreciate the work they do. Though Michelle Obama was a lawyer with little public advocacy for military families before becoming first lady, is her work any less important that the work of Laura Bush, who has promoted literacy through her work as a librarian for years before her husband was elected president?

Smith's definition of servant leadership might be more apt to describe the work of first ladies. According to Smith, servant leaders have an underlying attitude of egalitarianism, step up when the situation calls for it, and have the primary goal of community-building around a specific issue. All three of these attributes describe the attitude and actions of most first ladies, who use their notoriety and public image to bring attention and help to specific issues.

While many of the actions of first ladies are in line with the typical definition of servant leadership, there is one major caveat: Greenleaf insists that servant leadership is the opposite of positional leadership. The two are, by his definition, mutually exclusive. So, which is it then? Are these women using their privileged position to enhance their established public service or are they serving the public merely because their position essentially demands it? Or is Greenleaf, at least in this case, not completely right in his definition? Also, while neither approach is particularly better, is it possible for first ladyship to be clearly defined as situational or an extension of lifelong service, or should it be examined on a case-by-case basis?


  1. Elaine, you bring up a very interesting point. I admire first ladies who take a stand on issues and advocate for them. Currently, I am very interested in Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign and her hard work of providing equal access to healthy food. I agree that her position has allowed her to make changes and take a stand. However, I do think there seems to be a gap in Greenleaf's theory. I think in Michelle Obama's case, that she can use her position to serve the public. Even if her position demands that she serve, I think it's two-fold. Her position also exposes her to seeing a great need in our nation, which she feels like she has a duty to advocate for and try to fill. Therefore, it is difficult to make servant leadership and positional leadership mutually exclusive. It seems like servant leadership can sometimes emerge out of positional leadership because your position empowers you to see a need and serve that population.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I definitely thought that Greenleaf's theory, while useful, was a bit lacking in certain areas and a little too exclusive for my taste. Just because someone is in a position of power doesn't mean they cannot be a servant leader. Abraham Lincoln arguably had the highest positional power in the world, yet his work to end slavery was certainly service-oriented, to some extent. He was also a visionary leader, by most estimates. So, sweeping, exclusive generalizations like Greenleaf's seem inadequate in analyzing complex leaders like these.


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