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A Role Without a Rulebook: Key Takeaways on the Influence and Leadership of First Ladies

March 8, 2017 3 minute Read by Natalie Gonnella-Platts

When used effectively, a first lady’s podium is a catalyst for change. Yet, despite this influence, there exists little research on the role of first ladies. 

The Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative aims to change that.

Adding to the limited field of research on first ladies and women’s leadership more broadly, the Bush Institute and the International Center for Research on Women will officially release a research study on March 28 entitled: A Role Without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies.

Expanding the scholarship on spouses of state leaders, the study explores the leadership potential of the first lady role, the common and uncommon challenges women face in realizing that potential, and how first ladies overcome those challenges to effect change on their chosen issues. 

A first-of-its-kind analysis that includes interviews with and profiles of 14 current and former first ladies from five continents, here is a preview of four key takeaways from the report:

  • Over the past two centuries the role of first ladies has expanded, both in responsibility and opportunities to lead. This is in large part due to the individual personalities of the women in the position, the environment within which they find themselves, and the changing role of women in society more broadly. Illustrating the expanding role of first ladies, a four part typology was developed by the research team. This typology includes the roles of hostess, teammate, champion, and policy advocate.
  • Regardless of  political and cultural differences, common challenges prevail for first ladies across the globe – the role itself is often loosely defined (and in many countries lacks institutionalization), it is constrained by gender stereotypes, and faced with a legitimacy gap (i.e. exercising leadership without having been chosen to do so).
  • Despite these challenges, first ladies continue forward, leveraging key leadership attributes like personal proficiency; vision; strategic focus; time and talent management; and the ability to execute on objectives, to have a meaningful impact on important issues at home and abroad.
  • Women’s professional and leadership journeys start well before they become first ladies and certainly don’t end when they leave office. In many cases, women build upon their experiences as first ladies to take on prominent leadership positions after leaving office. In fact, for some, the most interesting chapters of their leadership careers are written after the formal Office of the First Lady.

Tune in to the launch event of the full report and a conversation with Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Cherie Blair on March 28.

The Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative engages and support first ladies across the globe in using their unique platform to improve lives.  Further information about the Initiative is available here.

 


Author

Natalie Gonnella-Platts
Natalie Gonnella-Platts

Natalie Gonnella-Platts serves as the Deputy Director of the Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.  In this role, Natalie is responsible for research and programmatic efforts that empower women worldwide to lead in their communities and countries.  The portfolio currently includes the First Ladies Initiative, the Afghan Women’s Project, and the Women’s Initiative Fellowship. Natalie leads the work of the First Ladies Initiative, which aims to enable and support First Ladies from around the world in effectively using their platforms to empower women and children in their countries. 

Natalie studied Communications and International Studies (Peace and Conflict) at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia. She earned an MA in War, Violence and Security studies from the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom.  Prior to joining the Bush Institute, she held roles in New York City at American International Group (AIG), and in London at ConservativeHome USA, the Legatum Institute, and BBC Worldwide.  She is also a co-founder of Each Inc., a non-profit that seeks to provide innovative technology tools to organizations that care for and protect orphans and vulnerable children globally, and has previously served as a project strategy advisor to Stop the Traffik’s Finance Against Trafficking initiative.

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