Vice President Kamala Harris Will Redefine Crisis Leadership

To date, America’s most celebrated wartime leaders have been white men like Lincoln, F.D.R. and Kennedy. In the months ahead, a Black, South Asian American daughter of immigrants will join their ranks.

Vice President Kamala Harris Will Redefine Crisis Leadership
Then-Senator Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People hosted by the Center for the American Progress Action Fund and the SEIU at the Enclave in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

With all the challenges surrounding this unprecedented presidential transition, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that history will also be made on January 20: A century after the first women won the right to vote, America will swear in our first woman vice president.

Kamala Harris’s inauguration will be a major step towards my lifelong dream and my 20-plus year mission to elect women to the top of the ticket. It couldn’t come at a more critical moment.

Violent extremists on the far-right, a once-in-a-century pandemic, and an economic recession awaits the incoming administration. And those are just the most urgent in a long list of looming battles. Whatever role Vice President Harris plays in tackling these crises—including the roll-out of a massive vaccination effort—she is set to redefine American leadership for generations to come.

It’s been said that great leaders are forged in crisis. Our research shows voters agree. Over 20 years at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, we’ve found that voters cite “ability to manage a crisis” as a critical qualification for executive office.

Historically, that’s meant a higher bar for women. Voters assume men are qualified to manage a crisis, while women have to prove themselves. It’s a double standard that can be credited, at least in part, to what we call the “imagination barrier.”

To date, America’s most celebrated wartime leaders have been white men like Lincoln, F.D.R. and Kennedy. In the months ahead, a Black, South Asian American daughter of immigrants—a woman whose very presence shatters the imagination barrier—will join their ranks.

As vice president, Kamala Harris won’t just break the leadership mold—she’ll bring valuable new dimensions to the role. With a long history of fighting for underserved populations, Harris is sure to be vocal when it comes to representing the interests of the communities most impacted by the many crises we face. That’s a quality voters value in leaders, and an area where women are especially known to excel.

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Harris’s relationship with long-overlooked constituencies has already translated to more inclusive policy. She’s introduced legislation ensuring that federal COVID-19 funding is fairly allocated to underserved communities, championed relief for Black and minority-owned small businesses and proposed universal paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave and easier access to child and elder care.

Just as important as smart policy is effective communication. VP-Elect Harris has developed her own style here, too, earning plaudits for her composurehonesty and steadiness, not to mention her singular ability to invoke joy, even during painful moments for the country.

Perhaps even more notable is Harris’s ability to listen. As vice president, she will model leadership that listens to scientists and experts, learns from those she represents, and solicits the advice of community leaders and staff who look like America.

Finally, Harris will display confidence that is rooted in competence. As I wrote in August, her arrival at the pinnacle of executive leadership is not a fluke. She has repeatedly broken barriers to become the first woman, first Black person, and first Black woman to serve in each of her elected positions.

At every turn, Vice President-Elect Harris has been held to different and higher standards than her predecessors, and proven she can overcome impossible double binds with an unbeatable combination of grace and strength.

For evidence, look no further than Kamala’s performance in the vice presidential debate, in which she pulled off a high-wire act, standing up for herself without ever straying off-message—even managing to coin a merch-worthy battle-cry in the process.

Together, these characteristics paint a new portrait of vice presidential leadership—one that more fully reflects the diversity of the American people.

It’s been 18 months since six women walked out onto the presidential debate stage and, in an instant, forever changed the notion that a presidential race is an all-male contest. When Kamala Harris takes the oath of office, she will forever change our vision of what leadership looks like.

After 92 male presidents and vice presidents, we will finally be able to affirm what women everywhere have always known: that a woman’s place—a Black, South Asian American, daughter of immigrants’ place—is in the White House.

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Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.