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Closing Keynote: Arianna Huffington on being a fearless leader

Posted By Robert Wray, Thursday, July 21, 2011
Updated: Monday, July 25, 2011
Personal and professional growth go hand-in-hand, says Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post. Poised and looking very self-assured, the fearless leader spoke not just candidly but comically about her journey in life and business. 

"Leadership is about seeing the iceberg before it hits the Titanic," she says. "We as women, as mothers, have gotten used to looking for the trouble ahead, right? There's something about that instinct that makes us special."

Huffington spoke about the symbiotic relationship between how we feel in our professional lives and how successful we are in our careers. "The key to leadership is how we react to the bad things that happen each day. It's not really about preventing bad things from happening but how we choose to respond," she says. "The more I've taken care of myself, by getting sleep and clearing my head, the better I am at reacting to the bad things." 

Huffington's perception on this really took hold three years ago, when she fainted from exhaustion after a college tour. Not only did she pass out, but she also broke her cheekbone and had to have five stitches above her right eye. "I almost lost my sight," she says. "That's when I began to wonder if this is what my life was really going to be about."

Regaining balance in her life was so important because in the end she didn't want to be affected like that by stress. "I wanted to be enjoying the journey as well." 

Huffington spoke deeply on something everyone struggles with, to some degree--fear of failure. True, we all have our fears but the question is: Do we give into our worst nightmares or move on in spite of them? Maybe move on to spite them?

She spoke of what might be familiar territory for most everyone in the room, that moment after we wake, when that nagging little voice in our head starts putting us down, "Hmm... Did I throw these jeans in the dryer by mistake?" Sound like a voice you know?

"It's like an obnoxious roommate that won't leave," she says. (She actually told Stephen Colbert on his show that it sounded just like him. He retorted with, "I just needed a place to crash.") But seriously, that obnoxious roommate in our heads can be one of the most draining things. Constant self-doubt plays havoc when let loose to roam free. 

Even being a mother and having a career can fire up that incessant voice of guilt. "I have a feeling that when they take the baby out, they put the guilt in," she jokes. Chuckles from a knowing audience attest to the fact. "My mother was fearless and taught us very well." Like the time Arianna was opening mail while carrying on a conversation with her kid, and her mother told her (in a deep Greek accent) how she thoroughly abhorred multitasking. Lesson learned.

It made her point crystal clear: There's a time to be completely present doing one thing only. In business and in your personal life, it can be absolutely crucial. Unplug, recharge. Oh, and according to Huffington, never plug your devices in next to your bed. We don't have to be on ALL the time. Think you're brave enough?

From here, she parlayed into her observations of the professional world. Ever heard the word "ambitious" as a negative term applied to men? Well, how about for women? It's not quite the same, is it? "So here we are in this marketplace and there is still this type of bias overall," she says. "I'm looking to balance this out for ourselves and our daughters."

That means being direct and clear with your intentions. "I love nothing better than people who are direct. I think I'm allergic to passive-aggressive people." For her, that means allowing criticism, encouraging it. People won't always agree. "But the one personality type that can bring down an organization is that backhanded-type of individual."

With over 1,300 journalists at the national level working at her organization, she is sure to tell everyone that whatever problem it is they have, be specific. How can there be accountability without specificity? She also thinks it's important to constantly reevaluate what is happning inside your business. "The most successful businesses are the most tuned in to the inner workings of their companies," she says. "Not out of fear, but a sense of expansiveness. Not looking over your shoulder."

All of this begs the big question: What is life about? What do we mean by saying we want happiness, and how do we define it for ourselves? "There's an extra instinct humans have--to find meaning in our lives. That's why we see people wanting their lives to be about making a difference and succeeding at the same time. Women, we've got to stop looking for a leader on a white horse to save us, and instead be our own leaders to make our lives better." That means moving forward in our lives with effectiveness. Finding more joy, more meaning... and for Huffington, more sleep.

Questions from the audience nailed her message to the board:

How does she pull herself back from the demons of doubt? Sometimes it just means taking enough time to recharge. Even a weekend can be a luxurious vacation--with no Internet and no phones. Then you truly know where you're at and are able to free your mind to discover how you can prosper.  

What wisdom do you impart on your kids? You cannot deal with a problem until you're there, looking at it. Don't start thinking ahead of yourself, throwing your balance off. Wait until your mind and body and the problem are in the same exact place before you deal with anything. Be in the present, all in one place.

Tags:  Arianna Huffington 

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Robert Wray says...
Posted Thursday, July 21, 2011
Michelle Gloekler sent us off with a touching farewell and a promising NEW future. Her only regret, she said, was that she didn't have enough time to personally speak with each and every executive in attendance. With that, she urged everyone to come back next year, and to carry the torch when they return home.

The Network's next national conference is the NEW Leadership Summit (September 19-21, 2011), in Orlando. For more information on the Summit and the Network's national and regional events and diversity programs, visit www.newonline.org.
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