KOKOMO, Ind. — Karen Freeman-Wilson stands on the shoulders of women like Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Meg Whitman, women who have blazed trails in politics, civil rights, and business.
As a successful leader — she is the first African American woman elected mayor of an Indiana city — she recognizes her own responsibilities to the young women coming up behind her.
“Just as I am fortunate to stand on those women’s shoulders, I have to be willing to allow others to stand on mine,” said Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, and a former Indiana attorney general.
She shared her insights on the characteristics of strong leaders with young women at Indiana University Kokomo, at the annual collegiate women’s leadership luncheon.
Good leaders have vision, and inspire others to follow their vision, she said. They give credit when things go well, and accept responsibility when they don’t.
“Good leaders understand that nothing happens without support from a great team,” she said. “If you are quick to throw people under the bus, they will hesitate to ride with you.”
Freeman-Wilson noted that leaders cannot be afraid to fail — she ran for mayor three times before being elected to the office in 2011, and she’s lost more elections than she’s won.
“You have to be willing to show you are human,” she said.
Good leaders are also good listeners, and are humble and compassionate, and, most importantly, remember to take care of themselves. She takes care of herself by exercising regularly, and by designating Sunday as her no work day, to recharge for the week.
“It’s OK when you are a leader, to also have a life, and to have a family if you choose,” she said. “The best leaders are multidimensional, holistic people.”
Freshman Whitley Lehr appreciated that Freeman-Wilson is a positive example of female leaders.
“So many times, women who are leaders are portrayed negatively, as being bossy,” she said. “She showed how you can be a leader and not be that image.”
As a certified nursing assistant, she also took to heart Freeman-Wilson’s comment that it is OK to say no sometimes.
“Sometimes you feel guilty when you say no, and you can get buried in responsibilities,” said Lehr, from Delphi, adding that she sees co-workers say yes to every time they are called in, and they get burned out.
Victoria Ochoa, Frankton, was most interested in Freeman-Wilson’s discussion of being compassionate, but not allowing people to mistake niceness for being a pushover.
“It’s a difficult balance,” she said. “This really opened my eyes.”
Chancellor Susan Sciame-Giesecke thanked Freeman-Wilson for speaking, and thanked the students for their campus leadership.
“You’re investing in yourself, and I encourage and empower you to lead,” she said. “We need more women to seek positions of leadership. It’s important that our voices be heard.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.