In May 2000, I received a call asking me to take over the Athens Olympic Games Organizing Committee. Three years earlier, I had led and won Athens’ successful bid for the 2004 Olympics. Now I was being asked to rescue an operation so far off its tracks that the president of the International Olympic Committee suggested publicly that the Olympics might be taken away from Greece.
Host cities are given seven years to prepare for the Olympics. We now had four. I had to build and lead an organization the size of a Fortune 200 company. The entire world waited, watching to see whether I would fail or succeed in this Herculean challenge.
I had always wanted to serve my country. As a child, I dreamed of being an ambassador, because it seemed to me that ambassadors had mysterious, glamorous jobs that impacted the fates of nations. When I confessed my dream, I was reminded that I had no family connections, no diplomatic lineage, and, besides, there were no women ambassadors at that time.
When I was born, Greek women were still two years away from winning the right to vote. Growing up on the island of Crete, I had two strikes against me: I came from very modest means, and I was a woman in a male-dominated culture. Fortunately for me, I had a father who was very progressive. When other men would ask him if he was disappointed to have two daughters, he would say: “I don’t need a son, I have Gianna.” He convinced me that I could do anything a man could do.
But to compete on an equal playing field with men required breaking glass ceilings, being bold, and being persistent. At almost every stage of my life, this is what I had to do – and did.
Hard Work and Achievement
When I was a young lawyer, they called me the “Golden Horse” because I worked hard and made a lot of money for the law firm. I had to lead a protest in order to be fairly compensated.
When I ran for Parliament in Greece, I put together a pamphlet that featured all of the women in Greece who had run for office – no matter their political party. Imagine in the United States, if someone ran for office by featuring Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin together! For me, it was important to celebrate all women. My unique, nontraditional approach won people over.
I was the first women president of the Organizing Committee for the Olympics, and I hired the largest number of women ever. I gave them a chance to prove their ability, and I was proud to see many of them move into other leadership roles after the Athens Olympics.
I was lucky during the planning for the Olympics. My mother was there for me, and for my children, during my long absences from home. I could not have done my job any other way. That’s not to say that it was easy.
What Should We Do?
These days we are having an important conversation about women and work and women and leadership.
Many people talk about how the world must change to give women the chance to lead. The world should change, in many ways. But for women who do not want to wait, for women who do not want to count on being lucky, the question must be: What should we do?
Early in my career on the Athens City Council, I took on the job of reforming the Athens school system, a job nobody else was eager to take on because it appeared so thankless. Years later, to successfully organize the Games, I once again had to see an opportunity where others saw only the likelihood of failure.
I don’t agree with the notion that women should lead or manage in a gentler, more nurturing way than men do. Tell that to Golda Meir, or to Margaret Thatcher. I believe that women should be free to pursue their ambitions the same way that men do.
I believe that a woman can be most effective by using all of her gifts – not just the ones she shares with her male colleagues. A woman should use her strength, her intelligence, and yes, her beauty, her charm, and her feminine intuition. This is a pragmatic judgment, not a moral one. Believe me, when I needed to persuade, motivate, or manipulate others, especially men, into doing what was required, I used all of my weapons and gifts. Well, all but one!
If I had to cry, I would cry. If I had to flatter a man, I would do that.
I would walk into someone’s office and say, “You are the only one in Greece who can do this. Your country will owe you an extraordinary debt of gratitude.” Then I would pose for a photo op to make sure that they would see their picture on the news. That usually worked.
A Long Journey
Women have already come a long way. Only men could compete in the Olympic Games during ancient times. Only men competed at the birth of the modern Olympics, in 1896.
Over a hundred years later, I was so proud to see Greece host a modern and successful Olympic Games in 2004. For the first time in history, women were competing in Olympia, at the birthplace of the Olympics. And they did it at an Olympics organized by a woman.
Seeing opportunity where others see only risk, being bold, being persistent, being confident in our abilities – this is how we will break glass ceilings, fulfill our own potential, and improve the world.
Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki is an Olympic organizer, ambassador of the Greek state, lawyer, and former parliamentarian. Today, Ambassador Angelopoulos-Daskalaki serves as vice-chairman of the Dean’s Council of the Harvard Kennedy School and is a supporter of the Clinton Global Initiative. She is the author of the best-selling memoir, My Greek Drama: Life, Love, and One Woman’s Olympic Effort to Bring Glory to Her Country.