Interview by Mark Cook, publisher and editor of Priorities
Written by Jennifer Hughes
Published in FranklinCovey's Priorities magazine, Volume 2, Issue 6
It's almost un-American to ask who Elizabeth Dole is. Wife of former senator and 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, "Liddy," as she is called, is actually considered a good bet for the 2000 presidential election herself (although she quickly denies any plans to run). But she's too busy for politics right now. She is president of the American Red Cross, a humanitarian organization that helps victims of some 60,000 domestic disasters a year. She has family relationships to ten to, including a "beautiful marriage" and her 97-year-old mother who is her "best friend." She has daily time set aside for devotional and exercise. And as if that weren't enough, she's always looking for something more to do.
A Life of Opportunities
Elizabeth Hanford Dole has the charming accent of a Southern belle from her childhood in the small town of Salisbury, North Carolina. She grew up in the lovely Southern home that is easy to picture as she speaks — complete with a magnolia tree. Her parents encouraged their children to succeed early. "They were very unselfish, and they wanted me to do things that would broaden my horizons," explains Mrs. Dole. She speaks glowingly of her parents, as if they were mentors and friends instead of authority figures. "My mother has certainly been a great influence in my life because she's very unselfish, very giving, always thinking of other people."
Mary Hanford taught Elizabeth by example from a young age to be generous with her time and resources. "Even now when I call home, more often than not there's a young person there. They come to her for help with a term paper and she'll gather material for them, or they need a little money to go on a Christian mission in Romania or maybe she'll call me," Mrs. Dole laughs, "and say, 'There's this very worthy young man here. Can't you find him a little job in Washington?'"
Young Elizabeth used the mentoring of her parents to take a path that was different from the most of her friends. "I don't know why I heard the beat of a different drummer, but I did," she explains, as she pursued degrees first at Duke University, Harvard and then Harvard Law School. In 1968 she began in impressive career in Washington D.C.: a consumer advocate in both the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, six years on the Federal Trade commission in the '70s, Reagan's Secretary of Transportation from 1983 to 1987, Bush's Secretary of Labor and then on to head the Red Cross in 1991.
Although she was the first woman in many positions to break through the "glass ceiling" (a topic she tackled while serving under President Bush), she explains that it was never her plan — "It just happened. It was not a matter of being out there in terms of marching in feminist causes — we were enacting it, we were living it. We were very busy living it," she stresses, chuckling, "and active in our jobs. We preceded the revolution, so to speak. And yet, you were not conscious of it, it was not a philosophical thing: It was just something I wanted to do."
She explains that although she never made a grand plan or blueprint for her life. "As I moved along opportunities would unfold, and in each position it was a matter of, 'What are the five or six things I can go into that position and do that really need to be done where I can make a difference?'" And despite a lifetime in a mostly man's working world, she does not feel that she was treated unfairly as a woman but instead emphasizes the positive. "Often I ended up being the only woman in the room. But I think people regarded me as a fellow professional."
Politics and Marriage
Mrs. Dole's relationship with her husband encompasses a mutual support of each other's careers. "Being blessed with a beautiful marriage makes a big difference. Bob, when we were married, very much wanted me to continue in my career. And actually, our two careers have really enriched our marriage, because he takes a great interest in what I do, and I've found the same great interest in what he's been doing and is doing now."
That support of her husband even took Mrs. Dole on an unpaid 14-month leave of absence from the Red Cross to go on the presidential campaign trail in 1996. Her husband's biggest fan, she broke unwritten national convention rules to give her speech strolling through the audience with microphone in hand to talk not of politics but to extol the virtues of "the man I love." But this is quintessential Elizabeth Dole: For anyone else, such a performance could have seemed artificial, but for Mrs. Dole it came through as genuine and heartfelt — an extension of her personality. In fact, Senator Dole's popularity rating peaked immediately, which many attributed to his wife, whose speech focused on her husband's trait of serving — like Elizabeth herself — those who need "a helping hand."
As president of the Red Cross, Mrs. Dole has had the chance to give back not just to victims of disasters but to members of the community, particularly young people, whom she feels strongly about encouraging. With her brother, she created the Red Cross "Youth in Action" program to honor their mother. Several participating high schools recommend students to take courses in various Red Cross functions and become certified. The certified youth who then perform the required community service receive college scholarships.
Mrs. Dole particularly wants to help kids that could be at risk. She believes that "their lives will turn around. There are lots of kids in our society today who need a helping hand. [When] someone says, 'I care about you. Let me tell you why it's important to not drop out of school. Let me tell you why you shouldn't take drugs,'... these lives will turn around."
Mrs. Dole is obviously successful at helping others — one look over her life's achievements attests to that. But, she explains, it's easy to have success when you "find that which you feel passionately about. That will give you the energy because it will be here from here" — she gestures — "it will be from the heart. And that's what I tell young people. Find that sense of mission. That will take you forward because you'll care."
But there's more to her personal success equation than just a sense of mission: Mrs. Dole also believes "being a person of faith makes a big difference." In 1981 she has said before, she realized that "God" got lost in her Rolodex between "Gardening" and "Government." She has talked about how this "spiritual renewal" led her to join a prayer group and dedicate herself to have daily quiet time and Bible reading. In fact, her faith is a regular part of the conversation — it seems as natural to her as talking about any other aspect of her life.
Her service at the Red Cross is even self-described as a "mission field": I think it is probably rooted in my faith and my desire to try to make a difference for others," she has said. "There is suffering in this world, but we do everything we can to try to make a difference."
The Red Cross has given her many opportunities to make a difference. One time she can't forget was in 1994, in the former Zaire, where a million Rwandan refugees set up camp in an area that was covered with volcanic rock. Disease was rampant, and the people could not dig to bury the dead. "I was literally stepping over dead bodies. They were piled by the side of the road, and two times a day trucks took them to mass graves. There's a picture here," she gestures, "and you'll see the only thing moving about that child is the tears leaving a little path down that dusty face. There were thousands of people around, but this child was sitting there by himself."
As Mrs. Dole came to console him, she noticed that "nothing was moving, not a muscle. Nothing, not an eyelash, nothing but the tears coming down his little dusty face." Thousands of children were alone, and many were traumatized. "I can still see them just crying, they were suffering, they were ill ... and I would look at those children, and I'll always remember exactly what my thoughts were: 'You have nothing: no parents, no home, no food, no clothes, no hope, no future, nothing but the Red Cross to meet your every need."
In the next breath, Mrs. Dole explains what we can learn even from tragedy: "And then you immediately think about how much we have in America, own blessed we are, and often we take it for granted. We've been blessed to be a blessing, we've received that might give." It's the kind of motto that she repeats often, and for her they are not empty words.
Of course, she points out quickly, one of the easiest ways to give is to donate blood to the Red Cross or even join its 1.3 million volunteers. The Red Cross is the largest supplier of blood in he United States, and over the last seven years Mrs. Dole has spearheaded an effort to revolutionize the way it has collected, tested, processed and distributed donated blood. This $287 million project, resulting in new technologies that have improved the safety of the blood supply, has heard high praise from peers such as Dr. Davis Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who called it a "heroic effort." And Mrs. Dole herself is no stranger to praise. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala has also complimented her leadership of the Red Cross, saying, "Few have done more to alleviate human miseries and save lives."
Following Her Own Star
Mrs. Dole has never been afraid to break stereotypes to do what she feels is important. With the mentoring that she's had from parents, several bosses and her husband, she knows she's been fortunate to be encouraged to "follow my own star." Looking again to her mother's life, she notes that if we make giving back a top priority, "not only will it be a very fulfilling life and very rewarding, but you can look back when you're my mother's age, and the question you'll be asking yourself is, 'What did I stand for? Did I make a positive difference?' And you'll be able to answer yes."
One can imagine Elizabeth Dole years from now asking herself and smiling, because her answer will surely be yes.