A Short Primer

Executive Summary

First Ladies – An underutilized resource

First Ladies – the wives of presidents or prime ministers – occupy a unique and potentially influential position in society. They often are the most prestigious and well-recognized woman in the society.  Their relationship with their husband provides them with access to other powerful and influential leaders and decision makers both inside and outside the country. More importantly, a First Lady is often seen as the “mother of the country.” As mother, her symbolic role is to look after all the country’s citizens regardless of social, political, economic and geographic divides. Put another way, First Ladies are probably the only non-elected woman who can pick up a phone and have a conversation with literally anyone in the country and who can speak on radio or television and have the audience listen carefully for at least the first few minutes.

The fundamental challenge for First Ladies is how to use the position to best improve the lives of the country’s citizens. The goal of this primer is to help First Ladies be the most effective and impactful change agents possible. The topics covered in this primer are based on our experiences working with First Ladies and their staff over the last ten years. The lessons learned are based on both the challenges and successes that they have shared with us.


Leading without authority

For First Ladies to be successful, they need to learn how to lead without authority. Unlike their husbands, ministers, legislators or even corporate executives, First Ladies do not have the authority to allocate resources, establish policies or assign tasks to others. Instead their influence arises from two sources: how they are viewed by the public and their relationships with other leaders.

First Ladies derive much of their influence from how they are perceived. Being benevolent, fair, inclusive and competent– all characteristics of a benevolent leader – enhance the prestige of a First Lady. First Ladies demonstrate benevolence by recognizing the country’s challenges and taking action to address the most pressing problems – particularly for those who suffer the most. They exhibit fairness by championing the rights of all citizens.They demonstrate their inclusiveness by breaking down traditional boundaries. And finally, they show their competence by getting things done and providing evidence of real change.

First Ladies also derive their influence from their relationships with other leaders both inside and outside the government. A First Lady’s influence derives from her husband’s position, but it is also important that she establish and maintain constructive relationships with ministers and other government officials as well as other leaders of business and civil society. The key to success in these relationships is for the First Lady to play a supporting role – one that offers to help other leaders in fulfilling their responsibilities.


Leading by focusing

To lead effectively, First Ladies need to think hard about which issues to address. Although First Ladies are inundated with requests for assistance, they can’t do it all.In our experience, First Ladies who find themselves pulled in too many directions rarely leave behind a lasting legacy. Instead, the most successful First Ladies are those who limit their attention to two or three primary problems.

Selecting appropriate problems is challenging because it requires balancing a First Lady’s personal interests and expertise with larger national needs. Some issues are naturally better fits for First Ladies than others. Good matches include those problems that: are large and important at the national level; have high visibility and international support (such as MDG/SDGs); have no inherent or established leader or have been generally overlooked; are generally non-political and affect people across traditional boundaries; and are aligned and coordinated with her husband’s and his administration’s policy agenda. Above all, however, the issues need to authentically represent the First Lady’s own passions and background.


Lasting legacies begin with clear visions, missions and agendas

Having selected a problem, the next step is deciding how to address it. We recommend that a First Lady begin by articulating her vision – what she hopes to see in the future. It is important to remember that visions are shared. Visions bring together people in a common cause and ultimately are realized through the collective action of many different players – not just the efforts of the First Lady and her staff.

After establishing a clear vision, First Ladies and their staff will want to determine the mission and agenda of the First Lady’s office. A mission refers what the First Lady will do in relationship to others in accomplishing their shared vision. An agenda is more specific and describes the steps that the First Lady and her staff will take to fulfill her mission. For example, an agenda will outline in more detail who will the First Ladypartner with, what roles will she play and what specific activities will need to be completed and when.


Playing the role of a First Lady

Traditionally, the role of a First Lady was to act as a social hostess during gatherings at the state residency. Over the last few decades, however, we have seen a significant expansion of the First Lady’s role around the world. More and more, we see First Ladies behaving like a change agent – someone who usestheir position to transform society for the better.

Working with First Ladies and their staff, we have identified 8 key roles that help promote and implement lasting change. These include acting as advocate, catalyst, facilitator, convener, coordinator, role model, recognizer and monitor. We briefly describe each below.

A First Lady can act as an advocate to raise the awareness of a problem, promote new solutions or act as a catalyst to call others to action.  In the role of facilitator, a First Lady uses her extensive network to provide introductions and access to other leaders and resources. A First Lady can also act a convener by bringing people together to tackle complex problems, or she can play the role of coordinator by helping organize the collaboration among multiple strategic partners. By practicing what she preaches and acting as a role model, a First Lady sets the standards for what is accepted as appropriate behavior. A First Lady can also play an important role as a recognizer – a person of high status that acknowledges others for their efforts and good work. Finally, a First Lady can act as a monitor by keeping track of how government and non-government organizations perform and holding them accountable.


Success requires mobilizing partners

First Ladies and their staff can’t do it alone. The Offices of First Ladies and the resources they control are inevitably too small to have an impact on large social problems. Instead, First Ladies need to rely on a cadre of partners to do most of the heavy lifting, particularly in terms of funding and implementing change.

The position of the First Lady is ideally suited for building a large and powerful network. As someone who is partially inside and partially outside the government, First Ladies can often reach across traditional boundaries and engage people and organizations. We strongly encourage First Ladies to work with a wide range of organizations from across the NGO, private and public sectors. First Ladies should also consider developing strong partnerships with partner organizations outside their own country.

To identify key partners, begin by asking two questions: (1) Who is already engaged in the problem that the First Lady wants to address? and (2) Who potentially could be engaged, but currently is not? Once a potential partner has been identified, the First Lady and her staff should ask: What is the partner’s interest and how does it complement the First Lady’s mission? What constraints ((e.g., legal, financial, capacity, etc.) might they have?  And what role could they play in contributing to the First Lady’s vision? It is important to remember, that when a First Lady and her office develop partnerships, due diligence is critical. Finally, the trick to building a strong network, is not to ask what the partners can do for the First Lady, but rather what can the First Lady do to help her partners contribute to the First Lady’s vision.


Developing a clear implementation strategy

Addressing complex social issues is a difficult and often lengthy endeavor that requires serious planning. For each of the two or three major problems a First Lady hopes to tackle, she and her staff should develop a strategic plan. Such plans are developed by answering a series of key questions, including: What changes does the First Lady hope to accomplish over the short and long term? What kinds of partners will she need? What roles will each partner play as the project moves forward?  How can the First Lady and her staff help each partner fulfill their role? And how can they trace progress? Strategic plans should be revisited on a regular basis to track progress and determine if the strategy needs to be modified.

Developing a communication strategy is critical during the planning stages. Messages need to target those who are impacted by the First Lady’s work, as well as who might be able to assist in making it successful. The communication plan should help the First Lady clearly articulate: (a) the size and scope of the problem she is addressing; (b) the First Lady’s aspirational vision for the future; (c) how she plans on drawing on the efforts of others; (d) the role she and her office will play in the process; and (e) how they know they are making progress.


Tracking and disseminating success

Change agents use both outcome and process measures to track success. Outcome measures track if you are having an impact on the problem you set out to address. For example, if you wanted to reduce the number of children who die before they are 5 years old, you could look to see if the informant mortality rates are dropping. In contrast, process measures track if you are mobilizing more attention and effort in addressing the problem. In the case of infant mortality, this might include increasing the awareness of the issue in local newspapers, getting local companies to help design and run public service messages about what to do to prevent deaths, and getting a local NGO to run training programs community health workers.

Monitory progress lets the First Lady and her staff know if their implementation strategy is working and how it might need to change. Collecting stories of successes are also important for demonstrating a positive track record that can be used to engage more funders and other potential partners.


Realistic legacies

Ambitious plans are notoriously difficult to achieve quickly, and First Ladies often leave office before seeing their visions come to fruition. A First Lady’s legacy, however, are the permanent changes that that will continue to address the problem long into the future. Sometimes these changes come in the form of new laws, regulations, policies or procedures; sometimes they come through changes in social perception and awareness of the problem; and other times they come through expanding and strengthening the number of people and organizations that are committed to addressing the problem.

In summary, First Ladies and their staff represent one of the most untapped resources in many countries. Our observations over the last 8 years suggest that with proper support and infrastructure, First Ladies can be powerful agents for positive change and that investing in First Ladies and their offices is likely to have high returns both in the short and long-term.

We welcome your edits and case studies.