Women's History Month

MARCH, 2023

To Be the First, but Not the Last

By Lindsey Rood-Clifford, 
Chief Operating Officer at Starlight Theatre
and Incoming President and CEO,
Starlight Theatre
(effective April 1, 2023)

Whatever your feelings are about former Meta COO, Sheryl Sandberg, a quote in her controversial 2013 book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” has stuck with me for the subsequent decade:

“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

As the incoming President and CEO of an almost 75-year-old Kansas City institution and its “first female leader,” the question I have been asked more than any other in the last year as I have prepared for my new role is what it means to me to be “the first.”

I have spent more time wondering what the right answer to this question is than I care to admit.  In the end, I think it’s complicated.  On one hand, I’d like to think that gender identity is one of my least relevant leadership qualifications.  On the other, I can also recognize what it represents to be “the first female leader”: it represents a choice that was made to do something different than what had been done for the 75 years that came before. 

And, I’d like to think that who I am – wholly and completely – informed that choice. That means that experiences tied to my gender identity like being a mother and growing up a girl and being the only woman around tables filled with men sometimes joined more traditional skills built from my background in the arts, fundraising and events to make who I am today and how I operate as a leader and the person they chose to run Kansas City’s oldest and largest arts organization and steward the legacy of a beloved civic landmark.

What does it mean to be a female leader then?

For me, I have always approached my career not as a path toward any one position or title, but rather as centered around the kind of relationship I want to have with my work.  As a fundraiser, being an advocate for the arts was like breathing – natural and necessary. There came a time, however, when I decided that the only way to have the kind of relationship that I wanted to have with my work in the longer term was to be in a position to influence decisions that would inform the culture and mission I wanted to be a part of. 

To get there, I did the things that always seemed so simple to me: I worked hard, I communicated well, I cared about my impact on both my work and the people within my professional sphere, and I assumed goodwill as often as possible with patience and conviction. I have never thought that I did anything particularly spectacular the way that I once assumed leaders had to in order to be knighted to their venerable positions; I just kept doing good, reliable, values-driven work. My favorite parenting tenant has always been “to model the behavior you want to see” and so that’s what I did, and that is what it means to me to be a leader. 

If anything feels important about being "the first," it is perhaps the responsibility to operate in a way that ensures you are not "the last." I would like to be a part of the work that ensures Sheryl Sandberg can be right about there being leaders one day who are celebrated for their qualifications as leaders, which include the unique skillsets and perspectives offered through diverse backgrounds and lived experiences.