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Anna G. Larson, Published April 13 2013

What does it mean to be influential?

Week one: What is influence?

“Women of influence” is an ongoing series exploring the women in our community who have the most impact and influence. Each profile will explore a different element of influence and redefine what it means.

FARGO – When exploring the subject of influence for this series, we asked 10 well-known women from our community to give us their definition.

Each had a unique story, but almost all agreed influence doesn’t require a high-ranking position. Instead it’s an attribute of a woman who has earned respect through her actions and shared knowledge of life.

For Colleen Sheehy, influence is not defined by power.

The nuns who taught Sheehy, CEO and director of the Plains Art Museum, at the all-girls Catholic high school she attended affected her view of social justice and personal integrity. One nun started the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter in Minneapolis.

“It launched a whole movement to recognize abuse against women and the need for shelter and protection to remove them from abusive relationships,” Sheehy says. “That’s an amazing impact that few business leaders ever achieve.”

Women may be more likely to influence through subtle behaviors – they don’t need to talk the most or be the loudest to be influential, says Ann Burnett, the director of women and gender studies at North Dakota State University.

“They may influence through silence,” she says.

Besides the nuns at her old high school, women who have influenced Sheehy include U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., artist Christine Baeumler, who teachers at the University of Minnesota, and psychologist and author Chris Linnares. Sheehy’s mother also influenced her.

“She has been such a model of strength, perseverance, love, humility and generosity,” she says.

Carrie Leopold, project lead for the Great Plains Girls Collaborative and STEM outreach coordinator for North Dakota State College of Science, defines influence as gaining resources to share and giving others an opportunity for personal growth.

With influence comes responsibility, she says.

“When you become a woman of influence, your first and foremost task is to instill the confidence in others around you and then encourage them to go after their own personal goals,” Leopold says. “I see it as more of a ‘guide on the side’ role rather than being in a dominant position as one might think about with power.”

Leopold’s mother and colleague Kristi Jean influence her. Jean tells Leopold every day that “she can do it.”

“I think simple words of ‘I know you can do it’ make all the difference in the world,” Leopold says. “Recognizing something that a woman has in her, something she can do that she may not see in herself, can change her whole world around.”

Women can positively influence each other by being mentors and role models, Burnett says.

“Often women enact influential behaviors that others can watch in action. Those behaviors may be more effective than telling someone how to be influential,” she says.

Moms, sisters, friends – Leopold says that every woman has some influence.

“If you encourage another woman to take that step forward and help instill the confidence she needs to get there, then you have become a woman of influence,” she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525.