Breaking barriers isn’t new for Nikki Haley. When she was elected governor in 2010, she became the first female to lead South Carolina and the state’s first Indian-American governor. With Haley announcing her presidential candidacy, she could be set to make history once again.
Haley launched her campaign in February calling for a new generation of political leaders. She said that winning the presidency would require America to do something they have never done before, “sending a tough-as-nails-woman to the White House.”
The month of March celebrates women, like Haley, who were trailblazers in their positions of leadership. Women’s History Month reminds us of the remarkable women who not only made their mark on history but who have also inspired the next generation.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, there are many leadership examples we can take from Haley.
First, you’re never too young to lead.
Although an unlikely candidate, at the age of 32, Haley ran for the South Carolina State House seat in 2004 against a 30-year incumbent Republican lawmaker in a primary and won. She served in the House from 2005 to 2010.
During an interview with The New York Times, Haley said, “Everybody was telling me why I shouldn’t run: I was too young, I had small children, I should start at the school board level.”
At the age of 39, Haley would go on to become the youngest governor in the country at the time and the first minority female governor in America. She saw two successful terms in office, with South Carolina’s unemployment rate hitting a 15-year record low and over $20 billion in new capital investment.
There will always be reasons or excuses for why people shouldn’t step up for a leadership position. However, the best leaders are those who aren’t afraid to take chances when they seem (or other people deem them) unqualified for a position.
Second, don’t let barriers keep you from pursuing your goals.
In her book, “Can’t Is Not an Option,” Haley described the discrimination she faced growing up as an Indian American. During the Republican National Convention in 2020, Haley commented, “I was a Brown girl, in a Black and white world. We faced discrimination and hardship. But my parents never gave in to the grievance and hate.”
This continued even in the political sphere. In the gubernatorial election of 2010, Senator Jake Knotts attacked Haley referring to her as a “raghead.” More recently, since announcing her candidacy, Don Lemon faced criticism for saying that Haley is “not in her prime.”
Haley hasn’t allowed prejudices to keep her from pursuing her dreams or looking negatively at America. Instead, she has said, “America is not a racist country.”
Anyone can lead when things are easy. Difficult situations refine leaders. Those are the moments when a leader can shine.
Third, speak up for important matters.
One moment that defined Haley’s governance was when she signed a law removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. This followed the tragedy when a white supremacist killed nine Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015.
Haley’s decision received bipartisan respect and landed her on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential Leaders. During a news conference, Haley said, “Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state without ill will to say it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.”
Haley recognized that her voice had power, and she used it for positive change within her state. When leaders refuse to speak and act on important matters, they remove themselves from the ability to influence others.
Fourth, fix yourself before you fix others.
In 2016, Haley was selected to give the GOP’s response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. In the speech, Haley said Democrats bore the responsibility for problems Americans faced, but she continued to say that it was not their responsibility alone.
Haley said, “We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in American leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.”
While Haley drew both criticism and praise from her own party, she put into words the importance of recognizing when leadership fails.
It’s easy for leaders to be good at finding what’s broken around them but unable to see the brokenness in themselves. Successful leaders learn to fix themselves before they fix what’s broken around them.
Fifth, remain true to your values.
In 2016, President Donald Trump – whom she initially was a critic of – nominated Haley to serve as the United States ambassador to the United Nations. During her tenure, Haley had to navigate the tense relationship between the president and the U.N.
In June 2018, Haley announced the U.S. was pulling out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, where she critiqued the group for protecting countries that violated human rights. Haley, and the Trump administration, received backlash for the decision.
During the news briefing, she said, “We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”
When Haley resigned from her post in 2018, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, thanked her on Twitter describing how she “led the uncompromising struggle against hypocrisy at the U.N., and on behalf of the truth and justice of our country.”
Leaders can face moments when it feels like the whole world is against them. Other times, it can feel as if the whole world is rooting for them. Either way, they must remain true to their mission and the values they live by.
Throughout her years of public service, Haley has paved the way for the next generation of young leaders. Like many women who have gone before her, she inspires others to get outside of their comfort zones and to strive for their goals.
This Women’s History Month, let’s take the time to celebrate the incredible women around us who have made an impact on our lives. And, let’s be sure to recognize the remarkable women who have made a difference in America by sharing their stories.