Gov. Jennifer Granholm at Elon Law: Be obsessed about helping others

Delivering Elon Law's fall 2015 Distinguished Leadership Lecture presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation on Sept. 14, former two-term Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm encouraged future leaders to find their passion and commit themselves fully to it.

Jennifer Granholm, the first woman attorney general and two-term governor of Michigan, spoke at Elon Law, Sept. 14, 2015. 
Granholm, who is the first woman attorney general and governor of Michigan, spoke about the importance of women in leadership. She noted that women have graduated from college in higher rates than men since the 1980s, but that advances toward women’s equal representation in public and private sector leadership had eroded. She said there were nine women who were governors in the United States when she was first elected in 2002, but that today there are five. In Michigan, during her first term, women held 28 percent of statewide elected positions, but today that figure is 23 percent, she said. And in corporate America, Granholm said only 4.6 percent of women are Fortune 500 CEOs.

“You have to step up and remember that it is not about you, it is about the changes that you want to make,” Granholm told students at Elon Law, noting that women often don’t want to be involved in politics and need to be invited to lead. “Why would I put my foot into the piranhic waters of politics only to have it chewed off? Except that if you don’t participate, then we’re going to continue to see the spiral. If you’re not serving as a public lawyer, if you’re not stepping forward to infuse state legislatures and Congressional seats with the knowledge that you gain here, we just lose that benefit and it is a shame for the world. By the power vested in me as a former governor, I hereby declare all you young people invited to lead.”

Granholm described her efforts as Michigan governor to grow and diversify the state’s economy, to ensure the longevity of the auto industry and to prevent jobs from moving out of the country. She detailed a particular instance of her administration’s effort to convince a large appliance manufacturer located in Greenville, Michigan not to move operations to Mexico, noting that the company’s ownership ultimately decided to move because of sharply lower wages in Mexico.  She said that experience steeled her resolve to focus on job creation in America.

“I am obsessed with this question about how we can create advanced manufacturing jobs in America in a global economy,” Granholm said. “I am obsessed with the hallowing out of the middle class. For me this was my tipping point, wrenching challenge. I didn’t achieve greatness, but I can tell you I achieved obsession. I want leaders who are kept up at night over this. I want people who are obsessed, who are losing sleep about how we can create jobs in America.” 

Governor Granholm told the audience that becoming inspired to help others derives from engaging people and understanding the challenges they face.

“If I hadn’t been in Greenville, if I hadn’t seen the faces of people in Greenville, I wouldn’t have that obsession,” Granholm said. “Fear not putting ourselves in a position to see others’ pain. In order to take action to help the rest, fear not being in a position to see others’ pain.”

Governor Granholm provided advice to young women considering leadership roles, encouraging them to commit deeply to integrity, to confidently step forward to assume leadership roles, and to choose life partners who could support their ambitions and balance personal interests. She also encouraged humility in leaders and connectedness to those one is leading.

“If you don’t have people on your team that see people or who make sure that you see people, then you will have really missed an opportunity,” Granholm said, referencing all those who work in jobs that often go unnoticed and underappreciated in large institutions.

Audience questions for Governor Granholm covered issues in politics, leadership and business. In response to a question about how advanced manufacturing can create jobs, Granholm said the ecosystem around a state’s primary industry sectors was key.

“You start with a strength that you may have as a state and then you build on that and you create an ecosystem around that,” Granholm said. “And that ecosystem has to include obviously a supply of talent, and that means that the universities have to train that talent for the types of jobs that will be created, it requires access to capital, so you have to have a whole strategy with respect to making capital available to the private sector, and it requires policy makers who really want to help grow and nurture sectors where demand is going up.”

Granholm concluded by underscoring the need for strong mentors to help women achieve greater equality in leadership roles.

“Women have to take their roles as mentors seriously.” Granholm said. “Men have to take their roles as mentors to women seriously, because sometimes there are no women above. Part of the duty of exercising leadership is really to make sure that once you have broken through that you reach down and you pull people up behind you.”

Faith Rivers James, associate dean for experiential learning and leadership and professor of law at Elon Law, introduced Governor Granholm. 
Faith Rivers James, associate dean for experiential learning and leadership and professor of law, introduced Granholm. Luke Bierman, dean and professor of law at Elon Law, welcomed an audience near 300 people to hear Granholm’s address.

“Lawyers as leaders are important because we live in a nation built on notions of liberty and equality under the rule of law,” Dean Bierman said. “It is worth noting that the vitriol and unproductivity that permeates our civic discourse and political halls correspond to a decline in the representation of lawyers in our legislative and executive institutions of government. We at Elon Law seek to instill the importance of the lawyer leader through both word and deed.”

Governor Granholm spent an hour with Elon Law’s Leadership Fellows earlier in the day, discussing paths to leadership in the law and leadership insights from her leadership experiences in Michigan.

Jennifer Granholm is the first female attorney general and two-term governor of Michigan. Governor Granholm currently serves as the Director of The American Jobs Project at the University of California, Berkeley, where she also teaches courses in law and public policy. In addition, she is Senior Advisor at Correct the Record, a research and messaging political committee supporting former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Granholm was first elected governor of Michigan in 2002. In 2006, she was re-elected with the largest number of votes ever cast for governor in Michigan. While serving as governor, Michigan was twice recognized by The Pew Center on the States as one of the best-managed states in the nation. Prior to her senior advisor appointment at Correct the Record, Granholm served as co-chair of Priorities USA Action. Governor Granholm is an honors graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Law School.

The Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation is an integral part of Elon University School of Law’s commitment to develop lawyers who are also leaders. Endowed through a generous gift from the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation of Greensboro, N.C., the Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series brings accomplished leaders from a variety of disciplines to Elon Law to share their experiences and perspectives with students and faculty. 


The ticket reservation process will open on Dec. 1 for the Feb. 9 Leadership Lecture by New York Times Supreme Court Correspondent Adam Liptak and on March 1 for the April 18 Leadership Lecture by ESPN broadcaster, attorney and author Jay Bilas. We encourage you to reserve tickets online here on Dec. 1 and March 1 to reserve your tickets at no cost for the Liptak and Bilas lectures respectively.

Elon University School of Law is leading innovation in legal education by integrating traditional classroom instruction with highly experiential full-time residencies-in-practice in a logically sequenced program of professional preparation. This unique approach to legal education provides graduates with the knowledge, skills and ethics focus necessary to excel as 21st century lawyers. Designed to accelerate professional maturation, Elon Law’s groundbreaking approach is accomplished in two and one-half years, which provides distinctive value by lowering tuition and permitting graduates early entry into their professional careers. Learn more at