What Kamala Harris can teach us about 21st century leadership
Kamala Harris is a force to be reckoned with, spending most of her career breaking the proverbial glass ceiling.
The daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants has created a long lists of first in her professional roles, and has plenty we can draw from her unique life experiences.
After high school, she attended Howard University, a prestigious and historically Black college in Washington, D.C., where she majored in political science and economics. Following this, Harris graduated with a law degree at the University of California, Hastings.
Her career has moved at full throttle after starting in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
The 56-year-old became the district attorney (or the top prosecutor) of San Francisco and the first female and the first African American to serve as California’s attorney general, the top lawyer and law enforcement official in the US’ most populous state.
In 2017, Harris was sworn in to the US Senate — becoming the first Indian-American senator. Her latest milestone? Becoming the first woman and woman of colour to win the second highest US office — US vice president.
Here are several leadership qualities we can all learn from Harris:
Kamala Harris fights to get her voice heard
Numerous studies suggest men consistently interrupt women — something that Harris is having none of, even when pitted against someone more senior than she was at the time.
Last year, the world saw Harris assert herself when she turned to then vice president Mike Pence and said, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” when he talked over her during a vice-presidential debate.
When Pence continued to talk over her, Harris repeated, “I’m speaking.”
Harris demonstrates that great leaders stand up for themselves — albeit respectfully — and hold their ground. While this may be easier said than done, it’s a leaf worth taking out of her book.
The devil is in the details
In her 2019 memoir, “The Truth We Hold,” Harris described her leadership style as “sweating the small stuff” and “embracing the mundane” to create big change, said CNBC Make It.
She acknowledged that good leadership requires “vision and aspiration” and bold ideas to move people to action, but said, “it is often the mastery of the seemingly unimportant details, the careful execution of the tedious tasks, and the dedicated work done outside of the public eye that make the changes we seek possible.”
She used the case of Corinthian Colleges as an example of sweating the small stuff. While she was attorney general of California, Harris’ office sued Corinthian, one of the largest for-profit college chains in the nation, for defrauding students. When the government won the case, a judge ruled that Corinthian had to pay back more than 1.1 US billion dollars to students.
However, to get their money back or transfer to another school, students needed to complete some “complicated” paperwork and navigate the bureaucracy. Her office then created a step-by-step website to walk students through the complex process.
Throughout the development of the website, Harris said she would try to navigate the system herself — if she hit a snag, the developers would go back to the drawing board.
Don’t complain — act
The fundamental nature of leadership is to act, something that Harris embodies.
“My mother always used to say, ‘don’t sit around and complain about things, do something.’ I’ve tried to follow that advice every day and live by the example she set,” she said.
“So I did something. I devoted my life to making real the words carved in the US’ Supreme Court, Equal justice under law. And 30 years ago, I stood before a judge for the first time, breathed deep, and uttered the phrase that would truly guide my career and the rest of my career, Kamala Harris for the people,” she said during an appearance in Wilmington, Delaware.
Leading for diversity
As a mixed-race woman born to immigrant parents, Harris understands the stereotype that comes with being an immigrant, making her well poised to lead a country with the largest immigrant population in the world.
“She was a brown woman. She was a woman with a heavy accent. She was a woman who, many times, people would overlook her or not take her seriously,” said Harris of her mother during her presidential campaign.
Harris was taught to embrace both her Asian and Black identities from a young age, attending a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple.
She had also spent time visiting her grandparents in India during the summer and studying at a public school in Quebec, Canada. Though moving to a French-speaking foreign city “was distressing, to say the least”, it exposed her to a lively multicultural community.
Harris later went on to study at a historically black college.
“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” Harris had written in her autobiography, “and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
Similarly, today’s leaders need to understand different perspectives, experiences, and habits of leading organisations or groups of people who practice different religions, have different sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, and political perspectives to lead successfully.