Quiet Audacity and the Power of Permission

Recently, Susan Cain chatted with Eileen Fisher, iconic clothing designer and creator of the Eileen Fisher Learning Lab and the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute. Eileen began her career in the world of fashion in 1984 with only $350 in the bank and no sewing skills. Relying on her experience as an interior and graphic designer, Eileen created a clothing line that combined simple shapes, beautiful colors, and high-quality fabrics. Today, EILEEN FISHER INC. has 60 stores in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, with a mission that embraces simplicity, sustainability, and great design. Eileen’s commitment to sustainability, continual discovery, and promoting leadership in young women is a great example of a company with a conscience.

The discussion provided a snapshot of Eileen as a person who is, in Susan’s words, “…quiet and shy with a spine of steel—there’s something about that combination that is incredibly potent that people can feel.” The following excerpts give Eileen’s perspective on being an introverted leader in an extroverted industry.

On fear

It’s kind of great to be quiet. I struggled with the idea of being an uncomfortable, shy person. As a child, I had trouble communicating, so I grew up feeling awkward (I still feel awkward—a lot). Susan’s work around the power of introverts was like permission.

I remember the first show I did—a trade show. I arrived with my garments, and I forgot to price them. I was so utterly overwhelmed! People would ask me the style number and the price and the fabric and where they’re made. I completely froze. The whole first day I couldn’t speak. I had to step up. I just kept trying. I’m learning to be with that, being able to recognize fear. It’s there, but I don’t have to be frozen by it. I note the fear, and I’m able to be with it—“I’m afraid, and that’s okay. What does it mean? What do I do about it?” When I do that, I can breathe or make a different choice or calm down.

On passion

It’s important to know what you’re passionate about, get in touch with it, and be able to talk about it. I remember introducing Gloria Steinem at an event, and I was terrified just to introduce her. I told her I was nervous and asked if she got nervous. She said, “I used to, and then I realized what I’m talking about is really important, and I have to do it.” I’m noticing the same thing: even though I’m terrified, I can overcome it because it’s important.

I’ve become more and more in touch with my purpose with sustainability. We’re working hard to change the way clothes are made. The clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, second only to oil. A few years ago, we did a sustainability offsite with the company, and I remember realizing, “My voice matters on this. I actually have to stand up and talk about it—to put the weight and influence of my name and the company behind this.” When I did, it gave people permission to do more around sustainability. When you’re passionate, when you care about something, you can stand up and talk about it.  

On conflict

I think the reason my company was able to work is that I was able to deal with conflict in the concrete world of the work. I could talk about what was wrong with the garment or the advertising or things like that. [But] if I wasn’t comfortable with the way someone was treating me in the workplace or the way they were treating someone else, I deferred to other people and let them handle those situations.

Now, with a lot of coaching, I’m doing a better job with [managing conflict that is more interpersonal.] It’s important to allow myself to know what I really feel so I can be direct about it. I’m really working on being more direct. […] I hate conflict, but I’m getting better. One cannot get away from conflict in life. My current strategy is just to be with it, like being with my fear—just lean into the conflict or the discomfort. To be able to go into a difficult conversation without knowing what I’m going to say. And to be able to do that today or tomorrow, not three days from now. As a quiet and shy person, I’m pretty conflict-avoidant—but it’s important [to be able to deal with conflict].

On success

I’m finally starting to feel more successful as a human being. I think we have weird models of success for this world. We think it’s about making a great company and money, but that’s not nearly as satisfying as speaking up about things that matter and telling the truth. I wish I knew then what I know now!

If you’d like to learn more, you can listen to the entire conversation, including a lively Q&A session. You can keep up with the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute on Twitter and Facebook.