What the Newly Elected Women in Congress Can Teach Us About Leadership

These four congresswomen are among those redefining what it means to be a woman with power.

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By Brijana Prooker • Feb 2, 2019 Originally published Feb 2, 2019

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A record number of female leaders were elected to serve in the 116th Congress. For the first time ever, 23.4 percent of the voting members of the House of Representatives are women.

Related: Diversity Wins: All of the People Who Made History in the 2018 Midterm Elections

And that's exciting, to be sure; but it's also a teachable moment, because female entrepreneurs can learn a lot from this new class of congresswomen who are boldly redefining what it means to be a woman with power.

Here are several lessons in leadership from four of them:

1. Have the confidence to be unabashedly you.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who at 29 years old is the youngest woman ever sworn into the House of Representatives, became a household name when she beat out 20-year incumbent Joseph Crowley.

On the eve of her swearing-in, a video of her dancing on a roof with her Boston University peers -- in an homage to the carefree, dance-like-no-one's-watching style performed by the misfit students in The Breakfast Club -- appeared on Twitter. The post was an apparent attempt to shame her.

She was supposed to be embarrassed, humiliated to voice her opinions. It was the sort of hazing that's become a tired plot on every TV show where a woman is hired to a position of power, only to have her (almost exclusively male) colleagues try to disgrace her into submission. (Reason: They fear how powerful and capable she is.)

Except that Ocasio-Cortez flipped the script. She posted to social media a brief but brilliant video of her boogying down to the anthem War (What is it good for?) outside her D.C. office. She also wrote: "If Republicans thought women dancing in college is scandalous, wait till they find out women dance in Congress, too!"

The truth is, we're not used to seeing female leaders dance, but the fact that Ocasio-Cortez's free-spirited moves went viral -- and that she embraced rather than crumbled at the attention -- opens up the perception of what a female leader looks like, and that's game-changing.

Female entrepreneurs can learn a lot from Ocasio-Cortez's ability to be fully herself, no hiding, no apologies. People want to see the real you, not a manufactured or watered-down persona.

So, talk about your dogs. Tell a funny story about a mishap at the grocery store. Have the chutzpah to dance like everyone's watching -- exactly as you'd dance alone in your living room -- because there is power in your being your unbridled self.

2. Don't wait to lead.

U.S. Rep Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., made history this year as the first Palestinian-American sworn into Congress. Just hours after the ceremony, Tlaib gave a speech calling for the impeachment of President Trump (and ignited a media frenzy because she included profanity, to boot). Politics (and cursing controversy) aside, Tlaib's bold leadership style is one to be emulated.

Related: 5 Pieces of Advice for Women Trying to Navigate Male-Dominated Waters

Time and again, women are hired to a powerful position, only to be told to toe the line and sit on the sidelines until they've "paid their dues." Men don't wait to lead. They aren't encouraged to keep quiet and observe or socialized to believe they don't really deserve the position they've been given.

Tlaib told the New York Times that she received many calls and emails advising her to wait to speak up, to wait to take action. She said no to that, however, and she's been raising her voice and actively leading from day one.

Tlaib's leadership has taken on many forms, from her remaining vocal about the human impact of the recent government shutdown to marching with her constituents in Detroit to rally against General Motors' decision to close a local plant, which will cost many locals their jobs.

Women in entrepreneurial roles can take a note from Tlaib's playbook: When you're hired for a leadership position, don't wait for "permission" to lead. Know that you deserve your role, deserve your power right off the bat -- and don't let anyone talk you into believing otherwise.

3. Share your story.

U.S. Rep Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz. the co-chair of the Bipartisan Working Group to End Domestic Violence, stood up on the House floor on February 14 and shared that she's a survivor of domestic violence. She did so to provide support for why the Violence Against Women Act is so important for women and children who are abused.

Though the legislation was set to expire the following day (which it did -- February 15 at midnight -- and was caught up in the budget battle, Lesko asked for a clean extension of the VAWA, renaming it the Protect Women Act of 2019.

She did more than that: Selected to serve in the House Judiciary Committee at the beginning of the year, she made a point of saying she would use her new position of power to fight for survivors of domestic abuse.

She has also made it a priority to share her story: She's answered the ignorant and loaded question of "why don't women leave abusive men?" with her own truth, which is "the fear of being killed if you ever attempted to leave, as so many are. The fear of your children being taken or harmed. The fear of not knowing where to live or how you will support your family with little to no money."

Storytelling is a powerful tool for entrepreneurs, the perfect antidote to the dizzying, irritating effect of ads and self-promotion. Say you're an acupuncturist who started her own business. Most people won't care unless they know the story that explains why. You could say you "want to heal others" but that's generic

Instead, if you tell the story of how your mother was sick with a rare illness throughout your childhood and you chose to study acupuncture in hopes of providing her with the relief that Western medicine could not ... now, that is something that people will remember.

4. Empower and embolden others.

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., the first black woman -- and person of color, period-- from Massachusetts to be elected to the House of Representatives, doesn't see her new leadership position as being about herself and her own ego, but about being able to empower and embolden others.

Because of gender bias in hiring, many female leaders have become accustomed to being the only woman in a room full of men. This has led to the oppressive stereotype that women will go to All About Eve lengths to tear each other down.

But Pressley fervently discredits that stereotype. When Ocasio-Cortez was called out on social media for her dancing, Pressley was quick to stand up for her colleague. She also had her peer Tlaib's back on the double standard-incited controversy over her cursing. Said Pressley: "I'd rather us be focused on foul policies and how to mitigate and reverse the impact of those policies than foul language."

It's not just her fellow congresswomen Pressley is uplifting. She has made it her mission to use her position of power to elevate marginalized voices of all kinds, from people with disabilities to those struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. She's vowed to fight misogyny and systemic racism along the way.

Pressley realizes that a successful personal brand focuses on other people; otherwise you're just tooting your own horn, which is a huge turn-off. If you sell cat toys and donate a portion of your sales to cat rescues, then share those stories on how other people are helping cats, post pictures of happy cats newly rescued and perhaps even link to your other favorite cat products.

When you help promote other people and products, you build goodwill as well as a community that hopefully will return the favor.

When you support and stand up for other women, you learn that angling to be the one woman in the room is beyond passé. You learn that true power and contentment come from building an army of women who have your back.

Related: 10 Working Women Pioneers Who Changed the World for Good

Not a bad lesson for women entrepreneurs to learn, too, right?

Brijana Prooker

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Creative Projects Director at KOTAW Content Marketing

Brijana Prooker is the executive brand journalist and creative projects director at KOTAW Content Marketing, a Los Angeles creative marketing and brand storytelling studio. 

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