Say Yes to Hubris: The Other Palin Effect

The next time you want to take a big career leap, stop and think, "What would Sarah do?" The answer: Don’t let sexism get in the way.

By Melinda Henneberger
Sarah Palin at a rally in Carson City, Nevada (Photo: Max Whittaker / Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, Charlie Gibson of ABC News was the first journalist who got to ask Sarah Palin "the question," the one everyone is still asking, the one Palin will tackle as text or subtext for 90 minutes in next week’s debate with Joe Biden.

"Can you look the country in the eye," Gibson asked, "and say, ‘I have the experience and I have the ability to be not just vice president but perhaps president of the United States of America?’" The 44-year-old newly minted vice presidential candidate did not falter: "I do, Charlie … I’m ready.’‘

Of course, this was a big-deal interview (Palin’s first as potential veep) and Gibson couldn’t just take yes for an answer. "When McCain asked you to take the No. 2 spot, for a moment, did you think no?" Palin: "I did not. I thought yes right off the bat.’‘

And still Gibson kept at her, testing the patience of some of us in the 10-million-strong TV audience. "And you didn’t say to yourself, am I experienced enough? Am I ready?"

Palin, with a hint of a smile: "I didn’t hesitate, no."

Gibson, again: "Doesn’t that take some hubris?’‘

Asked and answered, counselor.

It was hard to imagine a man in Palin’s position being badgered in quite this same way. (When Katie Couric of CBS got her chance with Palin on Wednesday, she pushed her hard to answer questions on the Wall Street crisis, conflict-of-interest questions and the possibility of a new depression, although Couric didn’t quiz her in such a personal way.) But it was impossible not to hear Gibson as the voice — and there always is one, even if it’s just inside your head — that says "What on earth makes you think you can do this?"

Whatever Sarah Palin heard inside her head, what she said was, "I’m ready." It does take nerve (and yes, maybe some hubris) to make a leap this big. But has such a leap ever before been attempted? Most definitely, it has. Men throughout history have run for — fought for, maneuvered for, taken at knife- or warhead-point — the ultimate big jobs without spending 30 years in training. (Before he took over the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke had served in several government advisory roles, but his day job was teaching college. Hank Paulson may be an old Wall Street hand, but can he really say he has the experience to run the entire U.S. economy? Does anyone have that experience?)

It’s only now, though, that many women of Palin’s generation are showing the same chutzpah, trying for the kind of positions — in politics, in business, in the arts or sports — that go beyond the obvious next step. (Some describe Couric’s ascension to news anchor that way.) This is what we’ve urged each other to do for years, and lately it’s acquired its own HR buzzword: the "stretch job.’‘

Armelle Carminati, who directs global "human capital’‘ for Accenture, the consulting firm, says that these days, she doesn’t look just for skills; you need "elasticity. The less we’re able to predict what will happen on the business landscape, the more agile we need to be — flexible enough for regular reinvention." Accenture is holding Stretch Roles events in 26 countries next March, targeted to its 60,000 women employees, in connection with International Women’s Day.

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