Paralympic medalist-author Bonnie St. John

The Paralympic medalist and best-selling author discusses what she and her daughter learned while writing her text How Great Women Lead: A Mother-Daughter Adventure into the Lives of Women Shaping the World.

Bonnie St. John overcame myriad challenges to be called "one of the most inspiring women in America today." Despite having her right leg amputated at age 5, she was the first African American ever to win Olympic medals in ski racing, winning a silver and two bronze medals in the 1984 Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria. She graduated with honors from Harvard, won a Rhodes Scholarship and was appointed to the White House National Economic Council. St. John is also a single mom, a business owner and best-selling author, who finds time to help others through such organizations as Opportunity International.


Tavis: Despite having her right leg amputated at age five, Bonnie St. John became the first African American to win an Olympic or Paralympic medal in skiing back in 1984. From there she went on to become a successful public speaker, executive coach and a TV personality.

Along with her daughter, she’s penned a new book called, “How Great Women Lead: A Mother-Daughter Adventure into the Lives of Women Shaping the World.” Bonnie, good to have you on this program.

Bonnie St. John: Thank you, it’s great to be here.

Tavis: It’s a great concept, for a mother and her daughter to write a book, especially a daughter as young as yours. She is how old now?

St. John: She’s 17 now.

Tavis: So you guys wrote this when she was?

St. John: We started at, like, freshman year in high school.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What was that experience like, working with your daughter and exposing her to these great women leaders?

St. John: Well, it’s the perfect storm between teenage hormones and perimenopause, right? (Laughter) So we argued about everything, but it was a great learning experience, and I learned from her as well as her learning from me.

Tavis: How did the process work? So you and your daughter would contact these persons? Tell me more about how you guys actually got these women – this is a high-profile list of people who gave up some time to sit with the two of you, so how’d that work?

St. John: Well, we sent out an email to everybody on my list, asking them who we thought we should hold up as role models for the next generation of women leaders, and got all these responses. Darcy and I started sifting through it.

One of her first comments to me was, “Mom, if we just do high-profile women in business and government,” I was talking about Hillary Clinton and the head of Xerox and amazing women. She said, “If we just do those women, a lot of people will feel like this book isn’t about them, or isn’t for them,” so she helped me to cast the net a lot broader.

So we have a high school student in there, we have a stay-at-home mom, we have the head of an orchestra, a fighter pilot. We really wanted to show women are leading everywhere.

Tavis: The timing for that concept couldn’t be more propitious, given the recent fight about Ann Romney and what a woman should do and whether you stay home, whether you go to work, what qualifies for being a great leader, what qualifies for being a great mom. What about the timing of all this?

St. John: Well, my own daughter would make little comments about her friends’ mothers, saying, “Well, she’s not doing anything. Why doesn’t she,” and I said, “No, no, no, no, no, that’s not okay.” When we went to meet Cathy Sarubbi in the book, she learned that Cathy Sarubbi had had a high-power career and made the choice to stay at home with her kids.

And she saw that Cathy Sarubbi was doing so many things in the community and making a difference, and at the end of it she said, “I would like to be like Cathy Sarubbi.” So she had a greater understanding for what it meant to be a great leader.

Tavis: If this how, Bonnie, were a question as opposed to a statement – that is to say, “How Great Women Lead,” question mark, the answer to that question is what?

St. John: A lot of people ask that, like, do women lead differently than men, and what we found was that women lead in so different so many different ways, and that is actually important.

That there’s a male archetype of leadership. With the orchestra conductor you really saw it, Marin Alsop, that for her to break into that field, she’s the only woman who’s head of an orchestra in a major U.S. city.

So she had to fight her way in there, she had to get a financial sponsor to give her opportunities, and she’s breaking the mold for what that looks like. But not only does it break the mold and allow more women into conducting, but it’s also (unintelligible) a broader range of men, because there’s a narrow archetype that also leaves out men who don’t fit that mold, right?

So by opening the doors and having more diversity as being able to tap into richer talent, she got an orchestra that was having a lot of problems. They had lower attendance, the donations were down, they were struggling. She turned that orchestra around.

So her different model of leadership, other orchestras are now looking at that and saying, “Maybe we should have a broader idea of what this should look like.”

Tavis: I take your point and I get what you meant when you suggested earlier that oftentimes, giving opportunities to women opens up the door even for a broader array of men, but for those who didn’t get that point, what did you mean by that, exactly?

St. John: Women have to lead differently. We’re not allowed to stand up and act exactly like men. We get punished for that. We can’t yell as loud as they can. We get called bad names when we do that.

So we have to reinvent how do we lead, how do we create collaboration, how do we have authority without being perceived as witchy. So there’s a lot of stories in there of women reinventing how do you lead. For Marin Alsop, she even has to change the way she moves the baton.

With Hillary Clinton we saw what she went through in the presidential election. So women are reinventing how to lead, and that paves the way for a wider understanding of what leadership is.

So how do great women lead? In many ways, in creative ways, in ways that nobody’s thought of yet. We’re innovative.

Tavis: You mentioned Hillary Clinton a couple times now, and I make note of the fact that you worked, of course, in the Clinton White House when her husband was the president.

But you’ve talked to Condoleezza Rice for this book and Hillary Clinton for this book. Both distinguished themselves as secretary of State; of course, one’s an African American, one’s a white woman.

But I wonder whether or not the fact that they are in two different parties challenges the way they lead? Obviously they’re both women, but Condoleezza Rice, and these are her own words, not mine, famously tutored by white men her entire career, her entire life. Her tutors have all been, her mentors have been white males. Given the party that she’s in, the field that she’s in, it makes sense to some degree.

Hillary Clinton, in a party that is much more diverse, much more broad, her husband beloved by Negroes in Arkansas and beyond. You’ve worked in the Clinton White House with all those African Americans in the cabinet and the White House. I saw Bob Nash in Little Rock just the other day.

So I wonder whether or not politically, since we’re in an election season, whether or not Republican women and Democrat women have to lead in different ways. Is that a strange question?

St. John: Certainly they’re going to have to lead in different ways. One funny story that comes to mind is both of those women had prayer groups while they were in leadership, and it was – if you think about Condoleezza having an African American women’s prayer group, there was a number of Democrats in that group who were listening to her prayers, so there had to be that confidentiality there.

Hillary Clinton had the same problem. If you think about the kind of women, she ended up with some maybe conservative Republican women in her prayer group. So it was interesting that that was something that cuts across both areas, that their spiritual support that they needed as women leaders was bipartisan.

Tavis: What was your take-away from the corporate women that you spoke to? Again, there’s a range of women in corporate America you spoke to. I raise that in part because the first person to take the fall for the JP Morgan debacle, the highest-ranking woman in the company.

I’m not suggesting – if women want to play the game, they’ve got to take the good and the bad. It was her division that caught up in this, so I guess somebody’s going to be the fall guy, and it’s your division, so you take the fall.

But it is interesting that given how few women there are in corporate America, the first one – all the males making decisions in this process, the first one to fall happens to be a high-ranking woman. But what was your take-away from all these corporate women you spoke to?

St. John: One of the things that came up a number of times was about delegating and having to be really good at delegating, and that women tend to be more perfectionists. The brain research even shows that we remember more detail, we feel emotions more strongly.

So learning to let go a little bit in order to lead was an important lesson that came through for a variety of people. Sharon Allen, the chairman of Deloitte, talked about that. Condoleezza Rice was actually really candid also about learning to let go in order to lead.

It was interesting that some of the messages in the book were strictly female. What is it that was different about a women’s leadership book that you’re not necessarily going to find in a male leadership book? Sometimes learning to be a little less empathetic with people.

I don’t think you hear in men’s leadership books, “Gee, be a little less sensitive to the people around you sometimes.” (Laughs) There’s a fighter pilot who was pregnant during the course of our time of getting to know her and fell down a flight of stairs, went into labor, stayed in labor for 54 days.

So just being able to really cover what’s tough about women and what is it women need to learn, and how do women grow. One man said he was going to buy the book because he wanted to be able to talk to the women on his team better.

They were complaining that all he ever talks about is football and baseball analogies, and so he wanted to learn more what is it like to be in a woman’s world of leadership. What are the analogies that matter, what are the metaphors that matter.

Tavis: Since I mentioned the woman at JP Morgan Chase had such a bad week this week, I should mention that you also spoke to Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, who’s having a very good week this week, given what Facebook is about to endure, so there is a balance in the text.

Speaking of balance in the text, what did you learn about that issue, balance, how these women balance leading in the world and leading at home?

St. John: Well, it came up a lot, and women do it in very different ways. One thing we heard a lot was marrying the right man matters, and some women overcame not marrying the right man, and that’s in the book. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, famously was married to an abusive man.

But by and large most of the women in the book – Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, talk about I could not be doing what I was doing without this man who has my back, and Sheryl Sandberg absolutely talks about that a great deal. So that’s good to hear, that men are important in this whole journey as well.

Tavis: You worked in the Clinton White House so you’ve heard this joke, I’m sure, a thousand times, that Bill Clinton tells so often about how he, when he was president, he and Hillary went back to Little Rock one day, and as you know, he famously drives a little Mustang, a convertible Mustang he’s had for years.

So they, with Secret Service in tow, pull into this gas station with the president driving his Mustang, Hillary’s in the passenger seat. They pull into the gas station and see a guy that Bill went to high school and they’ve known for years back in Little Rock.

The guy’s old, he’s lost his hair, he has wrinkled skin, his teeth are falling out, and Bill says to Hillary in the car, “See, look what would have happened if you’d married that guy instead of me,” and Hillary says, famously, “No, if I’d married him, he would have been the president of the United States.”

St. John: Yeah, that’s a good one. (Laughter)

Tavis: So he tells that story all the time, about marrying the right person.

St. John: But it’s also true in the reverse, right?

Tavis: Yeah, exactly.

St. John: It works both ways, absolutely.

Tavis: That’s the whole point, exactly. What are you most grateful for with regard to Darcy, your daughter, being exposed to this process?

St. John: A number of things. She was impacted by the conversation she had with Condoleezza Rice that got her to understand her passion for languages and cultures. She wants to study linguistic anthropology. Isn’t just something that is going to make her an ivory tower academic, but really positions her to be a world leader, and it changed the way she thinks of herself.

She started a model UN club at her high school and started really looking at world issues. Where we went to Nicaragua, she was so impacted by the poverty there. We came out of a restaurant with a doggie bag, and two kids started fighting over who was going to get the doggie bag.

It was so tough that she really didn’t want to walk away and not do anything about it, and that’s the reason we committed as part of the book tour to partner with Opportunity International, and it’s an Opportunity International woman leader who’s featured in the book, in the Nicaragua chapter, we’re partnered with them to help raise awareness and raise money for helping women leaders around the world.

So I know you have a youth leadership camp that you do, and part of what you teach is that you don’t walk away from a problem. You pick a problem and you do something about it. So Darcy decided that we can do this, we can partner, and there’s more information on our website, which they can get from your website.

Tavis: Absolutely. Let me close with this – I started by bragging about the medals that I see here on the couch, the medals and your Paralympic success. What’s the greatest – I’m sure there are many, but is there a particular takeaway that you come back to time and time again about what this challenge has meant to your own personal and professional leadership?

St. John: Having one of my legs amputated?

Tavis: Yeah, mm-hmm.

St. John: Being disabled, being a woman, being African American, I look at life through all those different filters, and people with disabilities are in their own civil rights movement at the moment that’s far behind women and African Americans.

So being able to look at different struggles that people are in and how we can overcome them, how we can overcome them and bring people along, and leadership makes the difference in all of those areas where we end up as a people, where we end up together.

Tavis: It’s a wonderful new book called, “How Great Women Lead: A Mother-Daughter Adventure into the Lives of Women Shaping the World,” written by our guest tonight, Bonnie St. John, and her daughter, studying for her college entrance exams, Darcy Deane.

Darcy, sorry you couldn’t make the show tonight, but trust me, studying for those exams is a whole lot more important than being on a TV show, and by the way, if you do really well in life, which I’m sure you will be, you’ll be invited on PBS time and time again, no doubt. Bonnie, good to have you on the program.

St. John: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Good to see you.

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Last modified: June 4, 2012 at 1:51 pm