Leading Under Controversy: Cecile Richards

By Kendall Silwonuk

Cecile Richards has served as President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America for ten years. In such a role, she faces threats and opposition every hour. Nothing she says or does goes without scrutiny. She calls herself an “activist,” and whether or not you agree with her mission, it is clear she has been very successful in organizing women and men to support her organization’s belief in reproductive freedom. 

 As a controversial figure, Ms. Richards’ role cannot be easy, but she is able to be an influential leader because she has so much passion for her work – passion, as well as compassion. She truly believes that everything she does is for the sake of someone else, and that she does nothing alone. These are the keys to her success, which she stressed during her talk to Georgetown students on Wednesday, April 20th. 

Richards began her speech by describing the ways in which progress can be made. She cited influential and controversial leaders of the past, such as Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader. Richards claimed that change happens under these leaders because “people are willing to speak up and speak out”. People – not one person. This plural noun was common throughout her speech. When describing the values of Planned Parenthood, Richards called them “ours.” She never claimed responsibility for Planned Parenthood’s growth over the past ten years, but referred to it as the work “we” do. In this way, Richards gives credit to all of those working with and under her. She is able to maintain support from her workers because of the way she portrays her role; the works is not hers, it’s that of many. Richards claims she is “lucky” to have a career as an activist, once again humbly portraying her role. 

Richards clearly believes that it takes many to make change. She discussed the ways the newest generation of workers and activists will be able to affect change. When she pointed out flaws in the government and its laws, she cited voters’ responsibility to choose their representatives. This clearly shows that she believes the masses, not the few, create change. When referencing the lack of diversity in the government, Richards asked the audience to imagine a more diverse, truly representative group of lawmakers. “Let’s do it.” Change, according to Richards, is something everyone can do, and something that takes many people, not one strong leader.

In addition to this compassion for those with whom she works, and her constant praise for the work of others, Richards also very clearly put her passion on display in Lohrfink Auditorium. She is very clearly dedicated to advancing reproductive freedom for women and growing Planned Parenthood’s services in places of high demand. This was displayed in her enthusiasm for opening three new clinics in her home state, Texas, which has recently passed legislation regulating reproductive health clinics. Richards claimed that “disruption is…choosing not to back down.” Reflecting how thankful she is to be in such a disruptive role, she confessed,  “You’ll never receive the kind of gratification you get when someone looks you in the eye and thanks you for making their life better.” Richards could not take on such a disputed role without this intense passion and belief in Planned Parenthood’s mission.

Regardless of personal belief, all leaders can learn from Richards’ experience and leadership in the midst of controversy and opposition. Planned Parenthood has gained support and grown under her leadership because of her qualities as a leader. She encourages those under her by giving them credit for their work; she recognizes that nothing is accomplished alone; and she remains vocal about the organization’s goal. She is compassionate and passionate.