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Arianna Huffington and Zhang Xin: Women Have a 'Tremendous Capacity' for Leadership


Arianna Huffington discusses the importance of maintaining a healthy balance for young female leaders. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

Arianna Huffington and Zhang Xin have had, by any reasonable definition, remarkable careers. The Greek-born Huffington is a writer and entrepreneur whose publication, The Huffington Post, turned her into one of the world's most influential media executives upon its launch in 2005. Zhang, a native of Beijing, is the CEO of SOHO China, one of the world's most successful real estate firms. Having come from disparate backgrounds and pursued separate professions, the two nonetheless reinforce a key lesson from their lives: that women thrive in positions of leadership. This lesson appears especially poignant in a year when Hillary Clinton became the first woman to receive a major party nomination in a U.S. presidential election. 

"What [the United States] is missing is wisdom, and I think women have a tremendous capacity to bring that — it's the most important function of leadership," said Huffington, who along with Zhang appeared in conversation at Asia Society in New York on Thursday with the organization's president and CEO Josette Sheeran. "It means being able to see the iceberg before it hits the Titanic."

In a wide-ranging, lively conversation punctuated by frequent laughter, Huffington and Zhang reflected on the wisdom gained through their lives and careers. Born 15 years and thousands of miles apart, the two women share humble origins: Huffington grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Athens, Greece, in the trying years after World War II, while Zhang came of age in a China mired in the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. These formative experiences gave them the fortitude to deal with the numerous obstacles they encountered in their careers.

"Resilience is an incredible gift, and ultimately what separates success from failure," Huffington said.

Another factor in success is, increasingly, knowing when to step away from the office. In an age where ambitious workers — particularly those at the beginning of their careers — are expected to sacrifice their health by working backbreaking hours, both Huffington and Zhang stressed the importance of health, wellness, and balance. For Zhang, this meant incorporating daily runs and dinners with her family into her grueling schedule.

"Twenty years ago, when I started the company with my husband, I had nothing else but work, work, work. I didn’t leave the office until 11 or 12,” she said. "Now, the work is established so I don't need to think about it every second. I can think about other things I can do."

Huffington echoed Zhang's remarks. Following a stress-induced fall in 2007, the driven entrepreneur realized that the culture of workaholism — which views the absence of sleep as a virtue — was unwise and even unscientific, akin to "believing the Earth is flat." Since then, she has rediscovered the importance of sleep to productivity and well-being, and has even turned it into a business — last year, the eponymous founder of the Huffington Post departed the company to pursue a new wellness-based initiative called Thrive.

"The first ring of success is money/power and status," Huffington said. "But this is like sitting on a two-legged stool — sooner or later you fall off without that third leg. [This third leg] includes your well-being and health. Without that, life loses a lot."

Another important aspect of wellness, she said, is giving — a priority she shares with Zhang Xin. The successful real-estate developer has increasingly turned her attention to her philanthropic efforts, establishing a foundation that helps lower-income Chinese students attend university abroad. 

"Everyone is philanthropic at heart," she said. "It's just whether we're aware of the moment when we can do more."

If there is one lesson to be distilled from a life of entrepreneurship, good health, family, and philanthropy, Huffington said, it's this:

"There’s only one way to live life  — in crescendo.”

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