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Lisa Ling Talks about Women and Leadership

September 17, 2010
In anticipation of her keynote address at the 2010 Women in Leadership Summit, we sat down for an intimate conversation with Lisa Ling, the internationally-known journalist, special correspondent to the Oprah Winfrey Show, and first female host of National Geographic Explorer.  Topics ranged from the role of women in leadership today to her sister’s captivity in North Korea to her new television show, Inside with Lisa Ling.

Linkage: We’ve invited you to speak at Linkage’s 2010 Women in Leadership Summit because you embody the spirit of the summit.  In your own words, tell us about your personal success story.

Lisa Ling: I feel so fortunate that I’m able to do work that I’m deeply passionate about.  I actually don’t consider my job to be work because I just feel so privileged to be able to do it.  And I think that that really is a key component of success.  If you feel passionately about what you do, it becomes less about work and more about wanting to get the story out or do things that are fulfilling.

To me it’s less about success in a monetary sense.  I always tell aspiring journalists that if you’re in this for the fame or the money, you’re in the wrong line of work because it’s a field that’s changing rapidly.  But if you’re in this because you are a passionate storyteller and you have an intrinsic curiosity, then there’s no better line of work.  I think that that applies to all fields and all areas of interest.  If something really strikes you then it’s probably the right field to pursue.  In my case, I got a job as a young correspondent for a show called Channel One News.

I grew up without a lot of money and resources so my job [at Channel One] gave me an opportunity to travel.  That opportunity opened my eyes in ways that I could have never imagined.  It expanded my horizon, ultimately made me a smarter person and a more human person.  So many of the things that I saw as a young person in the world transformed me completely and propelled me to pursue journalism and travel beyond my comfort zone.  I truly believe that it’s a game changer in one’s life, in one’s career, in one’s perspective.

Linkage: Tell me about one of those game changers that you saw when you were with Channel One News.

Lisa Ling: When I was 21 years old I was sent to cover Afghanistan.  It was 1994 and the country was in the middle of a civil war.  The things that I saw there scarred me for life.  But what was more disconcerting for me was that when I came back to the United States, nobody in my inside country had any clue about the scenes that I had witnessed.  That trip really cemented my desire to want to communicate these kinds of stories because Afghanistan was a country where the U.S. was so deeply involved yet my colleagues and my friends and most Americans had no clue about what was going on there.  And we’re seeing the aftermath of what happened in Afghanistan today.  It’s at the top of our headlines.  And I knew when I went there that we would hear about Afghanistan more in the future, so it foreshadowed a lot of what we’re experiencing today.

Linkage: Is this your passion – the desire to bring these things to light?

Lisa Ling: I look at myself as the vehicle through which people can experience things that are going on, both in the world and here at home, that they may otherwise not know about.  I’ve been given this incredible opportunity through the Oprah show and National Geographic and now on [Inside with Lisa Ling on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network] to communicate a lot of these things, a lot of these topics that you may have heard about before but never really thought about deeply.

Linkage: Along the way, have there been people who nurtured that passion in you?

Lisa Ling arrives at the 26th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards Ceremony in New York City on September 19, 2005. Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown/WireImage.com

Lisa Ling: I was so lucky to have gotten, as a young person, the opportunity to work with extraordinary professionals in the field of journalism.  Like Barbara Walters and Meredith Vieira, and Oprah – even though she’s not characterized as a journalist, Oprah has covered issues and topics more objectively than I think a lot of news outlets.  They are icons in the field of media and as a young person to have been able to study under these people was so incredibly eye opening – not only on a professional level but also on a personal level.  The things that they have experienced and sacrificed, their degree of passion and their work ethic, has been incredibly inspiring. These women are relentless in terms of their work ethic.  You would think that a lot of these leaders and iconic figures would take it easy after a number of years but these women defy that notion and are working constantly.

Barbara Walters, at her level of success, you would think that someone like her would start to chill a little bit, but she’s as passionate as she has always been and works as hard as she ever has.  I think those women have really paved the way in so many respects.  I credit them for the sacrifices that they made throughout their lives because I don’t think that I would be able to do what I’m doing now if it weren’t for the efforts that they have made and the pioneering work that they’ve done.

Linkage: You interviewed Hillary Clinton recently and you talked about women’s issues in a global context.  Tell us about that.

Lisa Ling: I really admire Hillary Clinton.  She is such a visible Secretary of State and she takes her role as a woman very seriously.  I mean that factors so strongly into her job and she has recognized that women’s rights are an issue of national security.  If you empower women in the world and give them opportunities, women will often stand up to fight for those opportunities.

Women are game changers in their own communities and by empowering women you can actually see change being fostered and disseminated.  She and I had a private discussion about how in certain countries and on certain continents, men have been in charge for a very long time and driven their country into conflict or war.  I believe that once women have more of a voice – and I’m not saying women need to take control by any means – but once women have an equal voice in politics and economics and in a lot of these social issues, only then will things really, really start to change.

I really admire Hillary Clinton.  She is such a visible Secretary of State and she takes her role as a woman very seriously.

Women generally have community and family at heart and it’s less about ego and more about what is going to make their family safer.  ‘How is my family going to be able to live better?’  It really comes from core instincts that I think women exhibit.  Certainly men have those as well, but I think in women it really just comes from a core that is different than that of men.

Linkage: As you look ahead to the next ten years, what do you think the biggest issues facing women are going to be?

Lisa Ling: In the United States, while women have made a tremendous amount of progress, professional women and women who take time for family are having a hard time not feeling guilty about their choices.  There’s constant debate and a lot of judgment upon each other for the choices that women make and I think that has to stop.

When I was on The View, we talked about choosing to manage a professional life with a family, versus women who make the decision to leave the professional world and focus on family.  That generated more email and debate than any other topic because there’s so much guilt associated with those decisions and I think that collectively as women we need to stop judging other women for the choices they make.

There’s constant debate and a lot of judgment upon each other for the choices that women make and I think that has to stop.

Linkage: When your sister was captured and imprisoned in North Korea in 2009 while doing investigative reporting on the North Korean border, it was obviously a family issue.  Did that change your perspective on the issue of work-life balance?

Lisa Ling: Well, I know it changed her perspective.  My sister was maintaining a schedule that we all thought was inhuman.  She made herself sick because she was working so hard. She put off having a family because she was working so hard, and the experience in North Korea was so traumatizing that she came back and really wanted to shift her focus.  She conceived shortly after she came home because her perspective had changed, and she had a baby several months ago.  I really respect her for that.

Now, has she abandoned her professional aspirations?  No, not at all!  Her priorities have just changed and her perspective has just shifted a little bit.  There are some people who I think could probably criticize her and say: “You should be on the front lines even more.”  But this is a choice that she made and I respect her tremendously for that because I know what she went through before her captivity and before she had a child.  I think that we as women need to celebrate women’s choices more because we have challenges that men just don’t have.  When I’m in the field I find myself with men far more than with women because it’s so travel intensive.

And a lot of those men have children.  But they have more stability at home because their wives are handling the home life.  I think there’s a reason for that.  I think that if and when I do decide to have a family, I’m probably not going to want to be in the field as much as I am now.  And I hope that other women are respectful of that decision and understand that it’s personal and I have my reasons for that.

Linkage:    You talk about the challenges that women have that are different than men.  When I was reading your book, Somewhere Inside, I was struck by something that the North Koreans said about Hillary Clinton when negotiating the release of your sister. They called her a “funny lady” and said she looked like a “pensioner gone shopping”.   Would they have said that about a man?

Lisa Ling: I’ve observed this throughout my career and this very often comes from women.  When women leaders are discussed in the media, for example, their physical characteristics are very often included.  What was she wearing?  Was she playing with her hair during the interview?  Is she heavier?   For some reason we always attach physical characterization to women leaders, when we don’t with men.

For some reason we always attach physical characterization to women leaders, when we don’t with men.

I’m guilty of it as well.  I think women are as damaging to other women as men.  When we watch a newscast, for example, that have a man and woman as the anchors, we are always talking about what the woman is wearing, or whether she looks like she’s aged, or whether she’s had any work done, or what have you.  And I’ve certainly done that and I have to consciously stop myself because I’m participating in sabotaging women.  And until we recognize that’s what we’re doing, it’s going to persist.  So when that was happening in reference to Hillary Clinton, absolutely those kinds of pedantic and sexist remarks would not have happened if a male leader had made a similar comment.

Linkage: In the different cultures you’ve seen in your career, what leadership traits are common?  What makes a good leader no matter where you are in the world?

Lisa Ling: The best leaders that I’ve encountered are leaders that really express a fundamental sense of compassion in their work.  Ones who are not just solely driven by generating revenue, but really have an entire company’s interests at heart, have people’s lives at heart.  I’ve experienced a lot of women in the world who exhibit those extraordinary characteristics.  To me that’s what defines a great leader.  Someone who not only has a powerful vision and is a powerful figure, but someone who also takes into account the people’s lives who are being affected.

Linkage: Even before your sister’s captivity, you were one of the few Americans who’s been inside North Korea.  You went there with an eye surgeon.  Can you tell me a little bit about that and what leadership is like inside North Korea?

Lisa Ling: I personally had never experienced such a level of indoctrination as North Korea.  It’s astounding that this tiny country has been able to maintain it’s stranglehold over it’s people for such a long time, especially given the fact that we live in such a technically infused environment these days.  And it also shares the same peninsula as arguably the most technically advanced country on earth, South Korea.  I don’t know how long they’ll be able to maintain that kind of stranglehold.  Already I’ve been hearing increasing reports about how information is being smuggled in via cell phones and people into North Korea.

I truly believe that once the people become more aware of what life is like in the outside world, they will increasingly protest.  Because it’s a devastated country and people are truly, truly brainwashed.  I mean they are lead to believe that they are the center of the universe and that all the sacrifices they are making is for the good of the country.  When we all know that the country and the leadership doesn’t have their best interests at heart.

Linkage: When your sister was in captivity in North Korea, you had a first hand view of some of the world’s greatest leaders at work – people like President Obama, President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Governor Bill Richardson, John Kerry, Al Gore.  What leadership lessons did you take away from watching these people work in an actual crisis?

Lisa Ling: The thing that I deduced from the whole experience with all of these very prominent leaders is that you can’t underestimate the importance of dialogue.  North Korea and the United States are two countries that don’t have a diplomatic relationship and so one side just can’t call the other to talk about their grievances.

At the end of the day, if you really analyze what Kim Jong-il wanted out of my sister and Euna Lee’s captivity, it was to meet Bill Clinton.  Because Bill Clinton expressed a degree of humanity to Kim Jong-il when he called him after Kim Jong-il’s father died years before.  It was that expression of graciousness and humanity that he had always remembered. To me, it is a testament to what happens when people actually take the initiative, put egos aside, and reach out to one another.

Linkage: You and your sister wrote Somewhere Inside, a book about her captivity and your struggle to rescue her.  Tell us about it.

Lisa Ling: Euna and Laura’s return to America was a huge international story and Laura was asked repeatedly by news outlets to tell her story but she knew that if she just did a TV interview they would probably sensationalize it and just talk about what it was like in captivity.  And Laura’s message of humanity, and the relationships that evolved out of her captivity, and the nuances that she experienced amongst her captors were an important message for her to try to convey as well.  Add in the fact that the humanitarian crisis on the Korean peninsula is still as bad as ever, if not worse, and ongoing.  Were she to have just done some TV interviews, that crisis probably would not have been discussed as much as the details of her captivity.

Linkage: Tell us about your previous book, Mother, Daughter, Sister, Bride.

Lisa Ling: I wrote essays for this National Geographic coffee table book.  It’s fascinating the kind of things that women put themselves through as rituals around the world, and this book is a collection of those rituals throughout the different continents.  This book is a mini-history lesson– a window into different cultures around the world through the eyes of women.

Rituals of WomanhoodLinkage: Can you tell us about some of the rituals that particularly moved you?

Lisa Ling: The annual celebrations of a woman growing into womanhood are really beautiful.  Quinceañera in Hispanic culture, when a girl turns 15 years old, is really beautiful.  A lot of the things that women do to themselves physically to signify their transcendence into womanhood are really incredible.  Americans often have preconceived ideas about different cultures and this book will give you insight into why women undergo changes to their physical appearance as part of these rituals.

Linkage: Did this make you reflect upon any rituals that women here in America have?

Lisa Ling: When Oprah did a Book Club show on The Good Earth by Pearl S. Book and they talked about foot binding in the book. It used to be considered attractive by men when women would have the bones in their feet crushed into these tiny little shoes so that their feet would look tiny.  After we taped that show, I emailed Oprah and I said “So when we stick our feet into five inch heeled platform shoes, isn’t that another form of foot binding that we’re doing to ourselves?”

Linkage: Tell us about Inside with Lisa Ling.

Lisa Ling: Inside with Lisa Ling is a series that starts in January that I’m doing for [Oprah Winfrey’s] OWN Network and most of the pieces that we do are domestic focused.  They’re looking into American sub-cultures.  A lot of these cultures you’ve heard about before but we just go really, really deep.  It really is the best work I’ve ever done because I feel like it’s the most tangible.  I hope that the audience really gets into the experience with me.

Linkage: This launch of the OWN Network is very exciting for Oprah as well.

Lisa Ling: Yeah, it’s exciting.  It’s stressful but I think that the network is really going to do programming that has redeeming social value, which is rare these days in TV. Hopefully the audience will appreciate it because I think that there’s a dearth of quality programming that is positive.

Linkage: Which is odd because there’s so much more TV on than ever before.

Lisa Ling: With more TV comes more crap unfortunately.   I mean I feel like we’re on such a downward spiral and to me it’s really tragic because I feel like it’s just the continuation of the dumbing down of America.  I can honestly say that you will probably find very little crap on OWN. [Laughter] I’m proud to say that that will be the case and I hope people just really respond to it positively.

Linkage: Any final advice that you would give to women who are just getting into those leadership positions?

Lisa Ling: I would say don’t forget to maintain a level of compassion in your work.  Really focus on the things that matter rather than I think the financial and monetary objectives, because that will come if you are passionate and you are good to your people.

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

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