Hillary Clinton took a sledgehammer to the presidential glass ceiling and almost broke it. Like the "We Can Do It!" poster woman of World War II days, she rolled up her sleeves, flexed her biceps, and showed herself as capable as any male candidate seeking the highest office in the land.
From now on, it will be unremarkable to see a woman win primaries, or imagine one in the White House, said Mrs. Clinton as she ended her trailblazing campaign June 7. That counts as a major contribution in itself, and it may very well inspire more women to run for office.
But another legacy will linger from Clinton's near-success in achieving a historical first in the Oval Office. She forced people to think again about how women can bring unique perspectives to leadership roles – whether in business or politics – and how that can make a qualitative difference.
Studies of women in the corporate world show what that difference can be. Fortune 500 companies with the largest percentage of women on their boards produce equity returns that are 53 percent higher than those with the smallest percentage of women directors, according to a 2007 study by Catalyst, a longtime advocate for working women. The management consulting firm McKinsey finds similar results in Europe.
Why? Because generally, women's experience and leadership style complement those of men.
Economically, for instance, women are the more experienced consumers, responsible for 85 percent of all direct consumer spending in the US. As leaders, they tend to be team players.
Studies show similar management styles among American women in government. They generally work collaboratively, transparently, and help further others' goals.
Interestingly, it is Barack Obama who more consistently expressed these qualities in the race, proving that biology need not be destiny.
Strong-as-steel Clinton ran a top-down, insular campaign that suffered from infighting, while Mr. Obama built his more open model from the grass roots up.
He made groundbreaking use of Internet social networking and gathered ideas from outside the campaign. (The video "Yes We Can" with music by will.i.am first hit YouTube before it was officially picked up by my.barackobama.com.) Rhetorically, Obama presents himself more as a facilitator than a commander – attempting to melt differences by bringing disparate groups together.
In a close race that can be viewed not only as Clinton's "experience" versus Obama's "change," but also as fighter versus reconciler, voters opted slightly for a man molded by his grandmother.
Maybe it's the generational difference that accounts for this role reversal of qualities. Clinton comes from an era in which women battled for even an inch of progress in a man's world – and they still aren't on equal footing.
But in a world increasingly interconnected, and in a capital becoming more partisan with each administration, both men and women need to recognize that leadership today requires more cooperation than confrontation.
One wonders what might have been if Clinton, instead of hammering at that glass ceiling, had tried to melt it.