Grit and guts: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is an emboldened trailblazer

For those of you who, like me, live far from the Washington Beltway, you may not until recently have been familiar with the junior senator from New York. It’s time we all are.

When Hillary Clinton resigned from the U.S. Senate to become secretary of State in 2009, such renowned names as Caroline Kennedy, Andrew Cuomo and several others were bandied about as possible appointees to fill the vacated seat. Among the lesser known names was Kirsten Gillibrand. Fortunately, substance trumped celebrity.

Since she was appointed to fill the seat — and subsequently won reelection in 2012 – Gillibrand has displayed several essential leadership skills often lacking among politicians today. These include:

• A moral compass
• Vision
• Moxie
• Passion
• Empathy
• Knowledge
• Champion of the powerless
• Humility
• Courage
• Decisiveness
• A collaborative style and an ability to compromise
• Recognizing others’ achievements
• Discipline and focus

As a 25-year student of the qualities of leadership, this baker’s dozen represents the most important qualities I believe effective leaders possess, regardless of political party or political beliefs.

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Among the most important qualities found in real leaders is the ability to assume the complimentary roles of trailblazer and change agent. This often requires skillfully stepping out of one’s comfort zone and challenging the status quo or the prevailing conventional wisdom. It also means being a vocal advocate for what you believe and making tough decisions that may rankle staunch supporters. But after weighing and sifting through all the information at one’s disposal — and the pros and cons of such actions — effective leaders will pursue a course of action because they truly believe it is the right thing to do.

From her positions on such military policies as “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” to the appalling increase in military sexual assaults to transparency on earmarks and women’s rights issues and more, Gillibrand has shown herself to be a tenacious crusader for what she believes. Like so many legislative issues whose true worth can only be measured over time, it is yet to be seen if the position the senator has taken in the just-introduced bill on sexual assault reform is the best solution to the despicable rise in abuse cases. But let there be no disputing her “fighting spirit” and her determination to try to do the right thing by galvanizing support from both parties to address and resolve this egregious problem in our military. She is a woman who has what my father called “backbone.” It is that all-too-rare quality that combines acumen with spunk.

As a fourth-generation, politically independent Californian, I salute this fresh young senator from New York and hope we will soon have more like her in positions of responsibility, both in Washington and in board rooms around the country.


Eich is principal of Eich Associated, a leadership consulting firm. He is the author of Real Leaders Don’t Boss (Career Press, 2012) and is currently writing his second book on leadership. Eich has served on congressional committees for U.S. Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.).