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Simmons President Helen Drinan Receives Pinnacle Award

February 6, 2012

Photo Caption: Simmons President Helen Drinan (above right) was one of eight women to receive a Pinnacle Award from the Boston Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 26. Read more about the 2012 winners here.

The following opinion piece by President Helen Drinan appeared in the Feb. 3 print edition of the Boston Business Journal. It also appeared on the Boston Business Journal website.

Women Leaders Need to Risk Failure in Order to Succeed

This past week, I was honored to receive a 2012 Pinnacle Award from the Boston Chamber of Commerce. I was one of eight women in the Boston area recognized for achievement in industries such as media, healthcare, energy, business, and education.

I was blessed to have with me colleagues from Simmons College, friends, and family including my daughter, and 12-year-old granddaughter. As I sat waiting for my name to be called, I wondered what my young granddaughter was thinking. Here she was, surrounded by hundreds of successful women talking about leadership. Would she have the same opportunities as these women? Will she have more? Will she attempt to do something out of her comfort zone? And will she be supported in these attempts by women mentors and peers? I certainly hope so because in order to move our nation forward and meet the many challenges before us, it's crucial that women – half of our workforce population – realize their full potential.

Many of the women who were honored with me at the Pinnacle Awards talked about their experiences with risk during the course of their careers. And I too shared my story of risk, and failure, and lessons learned.
When I returned from the Peace Corps in the early 70s, I was enthusiastic about pursuing a career as a foreign service officer. This position required a written exam, given only once a year, followed by an oral exam. For three years I followed the process, and I failed.

The first year, I failed the written exam. The second year, I passed the written exam, got myself all dressed up for the oral, and failed it. Same thing the third year. I remember being totally deflated and — in a moment of painful clarity — I realized I was not destined to be part of the foreign service. Ironically, roughly 25 years after I had applied and been denied to the foreign service, I was asked to be the named plaintiff in a class action suit against the State Department for employment discrimination against women. I certainly felt a sense of justice, but it never erased my speculation about what might have been.

Did I "give up on my dreams"? Some may say yes, but I think the hallmark of a good leader is someone who realizes that within failure lies new opportunities and new dreams.

Every leader – man or woman – has experienced failure in some fashion and has learned from that. Leaders understand that when life moves you in a different direction, you must respond. Women need to understand and be comfortable with the fact that failure is not the end, it is simply part of the path to leadership.