Ambassador Karen Hughes Discusses Leadership at the FWA

hughes_karenBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“I’ve always done what I’m passionate about,” began Ambassador Karen Hughes, Global Vice Chair of public relations firm Burson Marsteller. “I always tell young people, ‘follow your passion and keep with your values.'”

At a recent Financial Women’s Association Event, Hughes recalled some of the critical moments during her previous career as Counselor to President George W. Bush and Under Secretary of Public Affairs at the State Department. She discussed important factors for strong leadership, and what it means to follow your passion.

CEOs of Leadership

Hughes said she had identified three factors that matter most in leadership – clarity, setting an example, and optimism. First, she said, clarity is the cornerstone of effective leadership. “It is absolutely key, in my line of work, to communicate goals and priorities.” But, she continued, clarity is about more than stating goals. “You have to make sure everything they say and do are aligned and clear.” Clarity is about walking the walk, just as much as it is about talking the talk, she explained. “Effective leaders have great clarity and they show it to their teams,” she added.

Second, she said, was setting examples. Hughes recalled how during her work with the State Department she would try to set an example of cultural respect. She remembered visiting Bahrain wearing an Egyptian necklace with Arabic writing¬† on it. “You can not imagine what it means for an American [official] to get off a plane wearing Arabic words,” she explained. Hughes said that setting examples means making symbolic gestures to communicate your intent.

And finally, the third critical factor in leadership is optimism, said Hughes. “It’s that kind of passion that attracts people to a cause,” she explained. One of the things Hughes said she is optimistic about is how motivated women have been to improve the lives of others. “Women share,” she said, and whether that means advice on nutrition or getting involved in microlending, women are compelled to share with and help others.

She explained, “When women get involved – and I’ve seen it – you can really change a community.”

Leadership through Uncertain Times

Hughes said that she felt one of the reasons there is so much tension in the United States currently is that the people are worried about their future. “The American people are more anxious than I remember. Companies we’ve grown up with are no longer there. The brands we have come to rely on are no longer trusted.”

She continued, “The American Dream is that if you work hard and do the right things, your children will inherit a better world. And people are worried we’re not on the right path.”

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Hughes called for greater civility in public discourse. She wrote, “I am deeply concerned about the anger and intolerance in our politics and the lack of respect for different points of view.”

She continued, “Our political debates can and should be spirited. But our words should seek to convince, not to bludgeon.”

But Hughes said that despite this anxiety, she is optimistic about the future, and about public leadership. At last week’s event, she said, “For all of the differences we’re going through, I’m sure we can live up to our own values.”