‘Anyone can be a leader’: 5 lessons on leadership from Barbara Roberts, former governor and PSU student

By Summer Allen

A new book by former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts highlights the challenges and opportunities that come with being a leader.

A Voice for Equity (NewSage Press 2022) is a collection of 22 speeches made by Roberts during her remarkable career. Roberts was the first female governor of Oregon and has been a fierce advocate for disability rights, women’s rights, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental protection and several other causes.

In her work with Portland State at various points in her career, Gov. Roberts championed leadership as a skill that can be taught. She was a frequent guest lecturer on leadership, served for five years as Associate Director of Leadership at PSU’s Hatfield School of Government and helped create the Center for Women’s Leadership at PSU.

Below are five lessons on leadership we took away from the speeches in A Voice for Equity:

1. Anyone can be a leader

Roberts grew up in a blue collar family in a small town in Oregon where there were few female leaders as role models. She was a good student but no one suggested she go to college. Roberts got married during her senior year of high school, became a military wife and had two sons by age 21. 

A turning point came for Roberts in the 1960s, when she was a divorced mother with two sons, no child support and a low-paying office job. One day her autistic son Mike was sent home from the first grade and told he couldn’t come back to school. Roberts’ maternal anger sent her up the the capitol steps where she began to fight for the rights of disabled children in Oregon. Five months later Oregon passed the first special education rights law in the country. 

“That first political success for my son cemented my belief that if your cause is just and you are determined enough and if you can make your case well—one person can make a difference in the political process,” said Roberts. “I learned it then. I believe it still.”

2. It’s ok to be emotional about a cause

When Roberts began talking to senators and representatives to advocate for special education, she had no experience or even money to buy a legislator a cup of coffee. She was scared but also willing to learn because she cared so deeply about the cause. 

“I learned that the Oregon legislative system was a very open one. I learned very quickly that legislators were real people,” said Roberts. “I found it was OK to be emotional about our cause. The system was more than just facts and figures.”

3. “Carry the water” for future generations

In a 2003 speech she gave to the Oregon National Organization of Women (NOW), Roberts talked about the importance of “carrying the water” for future generations by being willing to be “the first.”

Someone was the first woman in law school, the first female physician, the first woman professor, police officer, engineer, labor leader,” she said. “Someone in this country was the first and only woman mayor, the first woman on a corporate board, the first woman to become a military officer, a college president, an astronaut, a councilwoman, a legislator, a judge—the list goes on. Across this country they carried our water.”

Roberts talks to NEW Leadership Oregon students in front of her gubernatorial portrait in the Oregon State Capitol Building (photo: Andie Petkus Photography)

4. Collaborate and communicate

In a 1995 lecture to the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), Roberts talked about growing anti-government sentiment, distrust and polarization. She discussed a time when she was working on tax reform, which she knew was likely to be controversial. To encourage public buy-in, Roberts collaborated with Oregon Public Broadcasting to try an experiment she called a “Conversation with Oregon.” She hosted a series of televised interactive meetings with thousands of voters across the state and used these conversations with constituents to develop a tax reform proposal. 

“I cannot describe to you how I felt while spending this kind of time and opportunity to discuss real choices with my citizens,” said Roberts. “They were really engaged in the process, the issues, the challenges, and the choices.” While the tax reform proposal ultimately failed, a University of Oregon report found that voters thought the process was valuable and successful and Oregon won national awards for the effort. 

5. Have courage

Roberts delivered the address at PSU’s 2007 Commencement and was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. During the commencement address, Roberts talked about the importance of courage, not taking the easy road and staying true to your personal principles even when it makes you unpopular. 

Roberts described how she put her own personal and political courage to the test in 1984 by inviting the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus to sing when she was sworn in as Secretary of State. This was so controversial at the time that the Master of Ceremonies asked if he could introduce them as the Portland Men’s Chorus (Roberts said no).  

At the end of her address, Roberts asked the class of 2007 to have courage in their future leadership endeavors: “I encourage you, I urge you, I beg you to be ready and willing to stand up and speak out and take a risk! Take a risk to create a community, a state, a nation, a world that is more humane, more safe, more open, more inclusive, and more honest. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat a little! Don’t fear to color outside the lines when necessary! Have the courage to stand alone and understand what it means to have history be your judge.”

A Voice for Equity book signing

PSU’s Center for Women’s Leadership is hosting an event to celebrate the release of A Voice for Equity.

The public is welcome to attend the event on Saturday, April 16, 1 p.m. at the Oregon Historical Society. Gov. Roberts will speak and be available to sign copies of the book.

Learn more

To learn more about Roberts and her legacy, check out A Voice for Equity or the Barbara Roberts Video Gallery, part of the Barbara Roberts Collection in Portland State University Library’s Special Collections.




%d bloggers like this: