Maria Shriver on Leadership

Like most women of my generation, I was raised to believe that real power comes from your work, from a particular job or title. Early on, I struggled to reach goals I thought would make me powerful: becoming a network news correspondent and anchor, writing best-selling books. Then, when my husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became governor of California, I landed a new "job": First Lady. By my old definition of power, First Lady wasn't really a job. In fact, when I took on that title, I felt professionally invisible. That's because the position of "First Lady" has no job description other than "married to the person with the power." It's not a line on the state budget. It's not an official position at all.

Making the transformation from being a public person in my own right to this amorphous role of First Lady has been incredibly challenging for me, but it has also been rewarding because it has helped me develop a more profound understanding of the real nature of power. I now understand that true power has very little to do with what's on your résumé. It's about being true to yourself and finding your own voice and path in the world. The way you come to your power is through your life's experiences and knowing who you are.

So many women my age thought that success meant being like a man: wanting the same job a man would have and getting paid the same money—basically copying the male résumé. But I think a lot of us who went that route now feel ambivalent about the sacrifices we made. What were we really accomplishing? What was the cost, not just to others but to ourselves? Was there another way to do it? Did we have to follow the male role model? I think this ambivalence explains why you now see so many women working to craft jobs that fit into their overall lives as opposed to blindly accepting the model in which power is achieved solely by climbing the corporate ladder. At the same time, many of us are seeking new ways to have an impact on our communities and the world. That has freed us up to take a much broader view of success beyond the limited view from the corner office.

I have a friend who is involved in 12-step recovery programs who has been a real mentor to me. I look at her as the most powerful woman I know. If it were all about her job, she wouldn't register. But she sponsors about 15 women. She helps them learn how to live without destroying themselves while keeping their families intact. In turn, they all sponsor women themselves. My friend has worked through a huge amount of pain in her own life, and she passes on her wisdom to these people to keep them clean, to keep them sober, to keep them understanding who they are. To me, she has great wisdom. I like the word "wisdom" because it applies to people who have been through extraordinary journeys and survived them to pass on what they have learned.

Motherhood is another tremendous source of power for women. For many in my generation, there was heavy emphasis on being a supermom—producing superkids who were in all the right activities and built the right résumés to get them into the right colleges. But I'm not sure enough respect and attention have been paid along the way to some of the simple acts traditionally associated with being a woman and a mother—the nurturing, the gentleness, the listening and the comforting. I think bringing into this world a child who feels whole, who feels loved, who feels safe and who feels centered is the most powerful act of all. If you get it right, wow! There's nothing better.

I feel as though I will always be a work in progress. Right now, I am trying to move toward a more authentic life for myself, a more conscious awareness of the power that lies within. And while I recognize my situation is unique, because of the family I came from and the man I married, I also know that in respect to much of my life, I am like the majority of women—trying to find a way to write my own legacy while balancing and respecting the other legacies I bear. Charting my own path has been a challenge, just as it is for women everywhere. We all struggle with the same questions: Am I entitled to write and live my own legacy beyond my roles as daughter, wife, mother, sister, employee, friend? Am I worth it? The answer has to be yes. At each challenge, we have to give ourselves permission to grow, evolve and change. I now have a new definition of power. It's passing on what we have learned and creating meaningful change through these experiences. That's the kind of power that truly matters.