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Chilean leader takes gender to the U.N.

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

When former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet was a 23-year-old medical student in the 1970s, she experienced trauma that would shatter an ordinary human being.

Instead, her personal experience propelled her to become one of the world’s most powerful and inspiring women, in a leadership position with the potential to impact millions of lives.

During the Pinochet coup, she and her mother were jailed by state security forces, along with other prisoners who were routinely beaten, shocked with electricity, raped and killed. Not only did she refuse to be broken, Bachelet kept helping to treat women who’d been raped by guards.

Thirty years later, she became Chile’s president. She hit a few bumps early in her term, but went on to reach Chile’s highest-ever approval rating. Even while she was president, she was being recruited to lead what would become a new initiative by the United Nations. It would be the first high-profile inter­national agency dedicated to gender.

But the Chilean president had mixed feelings about it. Initially, she felt she should stay in Chile to help her own country in some way. But her overwhelming sense of service led her to step up to lead the U.N.’s Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women—known simply as U.N. Women.

Once again, she’s hitting some bumps. U.N. Women doesn’t have the power of a full agency. And it hasn’t raised the necessary startup funds.

Bachelet continues to focus on what’s possible, though, rather than her barriers—the same outlook she has when it comes to female empowerment. “I am not disappointed. I am not frustrated,” she says. “I would just love to be able to progress much faster than we can.”

That attitude, perhaps, is what has given her such star power as a leader—inspiring others along the way.

— Adapted from “Michelle Bachelet Has a Mission,” Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, The Daily Beast; “Taking the Gender Fight Worldwide,” Katrin Bennhold, The New York Times.

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