The Editor's Desk

Skepticism—not cynicism, but a healthy wariness—is a reasonable reaction when you hear journalists engage in hyperbolitis ("more than ever before" is a good signal phrase of the affliction). Sometimes, though, a superlative is empirically justified. There are such things as genuine firsts, and the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency would be just that: an authentically unprecedented event in American history.

While this is our third annual cover focused on Women & Leadership, the issue you are reading has a special resonance in the context of the Clinton campaign. We have long struggled with whether discussing "women and leadership" is anachronistic. (We would probably not, for instance, undertake a series on "Men & Leadership.") Our reporting has consistently shown, however, that many women at the highest levels of political, corporate, professional and academic life have unique stories to tell, lessons to teach and issues to face that raise questions about the nature of power in America.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton. Would she, because of her gender, rule differently in the White House than a man of similar ideology and background might? (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that such a man existed, which he does not, since no other man was ever the spouse of a president and then won election to the Senate.) Are women really more nurturing, or better consensus-builders? Or do they have to be tougher than they might otherwise be to show they can play the game the way men do? And, while we are on the subject, who says that the way men play the game is so great? History pretty clearly suggests that men are quite skilled at making messes of things.

"Perhaps we should have reached a point where highlighting successful women seems anachronistic, but we haven't," says Barbara Kantrowitz, who helped edit the package and wrote its lead essay. "Although you can find female role models in many fields, women still struggle to find their place in business, academics, medicine, science, even the arts. Many of the women told us they felt they had to make up their own rules for success because there was no path laid out for them—as there usually is for men."

Our cover subjects, shot in three different settings by Nigel Parry, are women who found their own paths to the pinnacles of different worlds. Arianna Huffington is a leading figure in the blogosphere; Shirley Franklin is the first female mayor of Atlanta, and Rachael Ray has turned herself into a brand of her own. Led by Alexis Gelber, a team including Barbara, Holly Peterson, Susanne Miklas, Karen Breslau and Allison Samuels produced a cover package that features a series of oral histories and lessons told in the first person. (Allison also contributes an essay this week on how the Madison Square Garden sexual-harassment case should lead to a more candid conversation about how black men treat black women.)

"Women are now reaching positions of real power in many fields, but the ways they got there haven't always been smooth or predictable, and many have had to make it up as they went along," Alexis says. "Does an unorthodox path to power make them better leaders? Our readers seem to find our first-person accounts (in oral histories and leadership lessons) instructive. They want to find out what it's like—and what skills it really takes—to become a leader." This issue is a good place to begin.