Lessons in Leadership: Penny Pilgram Brunch

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Zarah Udwadia, Tamara Frances, McKenna Ganz, students, Center for Leadership Development and Social Action

Thumbnail Last Thursday, a cozy group gathered for a light brunch with philanthropist and Duke alumna Penny Pilgram George (WC ’65), hosted by the Center for Leadership Development and Social Action. 

The Duke University that Penny Pilgram attended from 1961 - 1965 was almost unimaginably different than the Duke of today. She described a Duke where her class was the first class of women that wasn’t required to wear white gloves, where women lived on an entirely separate campus (now East Campus), and where male students could only visit the female dorms twice per year.

Through the George Family Foundation, Penny is the benefactor of the Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative, an initiative that seeks to deepen women’s understanding and practice of authentic leadership. Students, faculty, and staff were eager to hear Penny’s thoughts on leadership.  â€œBeing a part of a women’s college in the South, you get so many mixed messages about how to be a woman. The penalties for not being a proper woman were much more rigid than the penalties of not being a leader.” While students laughed at several of Penny’s anecdotes about her experiences as a Duke student, her comments on the challenges and biases that women face as leaders were more relatable. This is the very reason that this initiative was developed. Students spoke about the mixed messages they continue to receive, and how these are slowly being broken down. Penny pointed out that the norm of male leadership is often still reinforced, even on campus. “We were just walking through the library and there were big pictures of men, and only white men. That sends a message to the young women on campus,” she said.           

Many of Penny’s experiences as a woman shaped her journey toward becoming a leader. Later in life, Penny had experiences with current practices of medicine that led her to re-evaluate what healing should really be about. A survivor of breast cancer, Penny felt that there had been so many things missing in her treatment as a patient and as a human being. Patients don’t always hear about the innovative treatments available to them, and medicine often relies on medications without paying attention to emotional healing. This realization led Penny to pursue philanthropic projects in integrative medicine.

In her former career as a psychologist, she never really thought of herself as a leader. Instead, she preferred to empower and strengthen others through encouragement and support. Penny says she came into leadership accidentally and unprepared without having much to offer, but she realized that being a leader doesn’t always involve telling people what to do - it also involves empowering the people around you. This too is leadership, but often not recognized as such. The question becomes, how do we recognize and honor that leadership? When is it time to step out in front?

Penny’s leadership philosophy places emphasis on authenticity, an idea that resonated with several people in the room. She described authentic leaders as those who align people around shared values, those who allow others to see their vulnerabilities, who are congruent in all parts of themselves. “The old model of a top down leader just doesn’t work anymore; now, people prefer to get behind authentic leaders,” she encouraged.

Authentic leadership means encouraging the people around you and allowing them to see your vulnerabilities.  Penny and participants remarked that women and men tend to have their own unique ranges of leadership, particularly highlighting the importance of women’s methods of mentorship and coaching. Although traditionally men have been seen as figures of authority, one participant remarked that women tend to be very skilled at authentic leadership, and that the need for authentic leaders means that the world is also in the perfect position to embrace women leaders. The group discussed how one could achieve this authenticity in leadership, and Penny stressed the importance of understanding how others see things. “I listen a lot,” she said. She wishes that she recognized her own way of leadership and what she could give, then feel empowered to contribute.

It was encouraging to hear from Penny, who truly embodied this idea of authentic leadership. Penny’s leadership philosophy was reflected in how she interacted with people in the room- she wanted to hear from the students as much as they wanted to hear from her, and was eager to learn about their experiences and thoughts.  She asked the participants, especially students, what kinds of leadership they saw on Duke’s campus today, and whether we felt that our community was encouraging women leaders.  By the end of the conversation, all of the participants had really thought about what authentic leadership - as well as the leadership of women - means to us on our own campus.

About the Initiative: The Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative seeks to deepen women’s understanding and practice of authentic leadership and empower female-identified students to lead confidently in any context. Generously funded by the George Family Foundation and named after Chair and Duke alumna, Penny George (WC ’65), the Initiative seeks to impact the culture of women’s leadership at Duke and beyond. All programs and events address a challenge that women at Duke face, connect to the Leadership at Duke Framework (Character, Collaboration and Citizenship for a Change for a Common Good) and are curated for diverse groups of undergraduate women. All programs incorporate the high-impact practices of mentoring, dialogue across difference, reflection and wellness components. Many programs are small group experiences for personal development, shown to facilitate the strongest development in women, and all student participants will be included in common leadership assessment.

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