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?