4 Life and Leadership Lessons From the Late Brenda Barnes

There’s a lot to learn from the pioneering businesswoman.

Brenda Barnes, a former CEO of PepsiCo and Sara Lee, died yesterday from a stroke at the age of 63.

Barnes, once dubbed by Fortune Magazine as one of the 10 most powerful women in the U.S., shook up the business world when she stepped down as CEO of PepsiCo in 1997 to focus on her family. She returned to the office in 2005, this time as president of Sara Lee — and as an exemplar for working women.

Here are 4 lessons to be learned from Barnes.

  1. Harness fear. During a talk at Stanford in 2009, Barnes described how she turned the highly public, negative chatter about her leadership — at that point, Sara Lee was experiencing suboptimal stock prices — into a source of fuel. “Fear is a great motivator, and I don’t like to fail,” she said. “Criticism motivates me more.”
  2. Break — no, shatter — the mold. Barnes shattered many stereotypes about a woman’s ability to re-enter the workforce when she chose to return to corporate life after taking a hiatus to care for her three young children. “There’s a large pool of women who chose to leave the workforce,” she told Forbes in 2008. “But it doesn’t mean they lost their brains.”
  3. Your needs matter. Throughout her life in the public eye, Barnes made it very clear that her choice to prioritize her family was just that: hers. Her children “weren’t struggling,” she told her alma mater, Augustana College, in 2012. “They were well taken care of…it wasn’t that they needed me, I needed them.”
  4. Hire great people, then listen to them. Barnes earned a reputation for her quiet but confident leadership style, and she espoused listening quietly over raising her voice. “You have to rely on your people,” she said at that 2009 talk at Stanford. “They have the answers. You can tap into them, and they can help you solve your problems.”