Lessons on life from IMF’s Christine Lagarde

27 Jun 2018

Christine Lagarde on stage during her visit to Dublin City University. Image: Julien Behal Photography

Education, gender diversity and even synchronised swimming were up for discussion at DCU, as Christine Lagarde spoke about a range of topics. Claire O’Connell reports.

Christine Lagarde spent yesterday morning (26 June) at Dublin City University (DCU), visiting high-tech companies at the DCU Alpha Campus and talking on stage with DCU president Prof Brian MacCraith in front of an audience of around 800 people at The Helix.

So, what did we learn during that conversation with Lagarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)?

Education is key, and needs to be supported

The eldest child of two educators, Lagarde grew up surrounded by books, theatre, music and visiting professors conversing at the kitchen table. “I think education played a major role in my life – probably not to my knowledge in the early stages, I thought everything was like that,” she said.

“It wasn’t a wealthy background … in retrospect, I think I was the wealthiest person on Earth, because having access to that knowledge and growing up in that environment certainly enriched my brothers and I.”

She also spoke about the need to support and change the education system to facilitate lifelong learning. “The external shocks that our economy is bearing also apply to education, and the speed at which innovation impacts our economies requires that education be thought through in a slightly different way from what we have seen for many decades,” she said. “[It will be] much more about a lifelong cycle of education.”

You can learn a lot from synchronised swimming

Lagarde was on the French national synchronised swimming team before it became an Olympic event, and it’s an experience that seems to have forged her ‘get through it’ mindset.

“I learned humility as well as discipline,” she said, describing how it was not considered a real sport at the time. “[Other athletes] thought that those girls who were dancing in water, who were swimming 50 metres underwater without breathing … were not athletes. Our national coach used to say to us when it gets tough, just grit your teeth and smile and get on with it. That has continued to resonate with me because of my life not as an athlete but as a person; we all face moments of adversity that are tough and your self-esteem is challenged. To grit your teeth and smile and get on with it and move forward has helped me a great deal.”

Try to take risks early in your career

Lagarde’s father died when she was 16, which was a difficult time for her family. Around this time, she went on a year-long scholarship to the US, a move she describes as the first risk she took.

“Me actually accepting that, moving away when the family was grieving, it was hard for all of us. It was the first intelligent move and I am grateful to my mother for how she supported that,” she said. “I would say take risks, it might work and it might not work but you will learn in the process. At that time in your life, you just pick up and absorb and digest.”

Confidence springs from love

Lagarde spoke about how blessed she was with her childhood and the precious base of confidence that she could build thanks to the love of her family. “I don’t think there is any secret or any mystery,” she said. “I think the best way to gain confidence is to love and be loved.”

Having self-confidence can help you to distance yourself from the nasty comments and contempt, she added. “Having a bit of a sense of humour also helps a great deal.”

Prof Brian MacCraith standing with Christine Lagarde in front of DCU logo

Prof Brian MacCraith with Christine Lagarde at DCU. Image: Julien Behal Photography

Women need to find people who will support them

Speaking about her career in law, she recalled being told in an early interview in a large firm that she had no chance of becoming a partner because she was a woman. However, more enlightened senior partners offered mentorship, which helped her to advance.

“You need to find people who are going to support you,” she said. “Try to find those alliances, those friends, those colleagues.”

A question from the audience prompted Lagarde to talk about supporting women in politics.

“I would say, point blank, that quotas actually make a difference,” she said. “For many years in my life, I thought that quotas were offensive and that women should be selected and should move based on their own merits, but it is taking too long, it is taking way too long.”

Europe is at risk, and we need to learn from history

When MacCraith asked Lagarde about her views on the future of Europe, she paused before replying.

“[Europe] is a big project that is at risk,” she said. “I think you learn from history. It all started with the ultimate desire to avoid war, to resolve issues by dialogue and cooperation and to create an ambition that would be bigger than each individual national pattern and strategy.”

She went on to talk about how things can change in a very short timespan, and she acknowledged that a lot of work remains to be done on the financial side and to deal with the pressures on Europe.

“I would say that it is extremely important for the Europeans to stay as much together as they can, to deepen the integration of Europe and the EU area, and offer this set of values, principles, constructions [and] dialogue to other models that exist somewhere else. I think that Europe is an enormous inspiration for other people, other countries … We need to constantly have in mind where we are coming from, what was the aspiration of the founders.”

Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com after the event, MacCraith described it as a “hugely uplifting” experience and welcomed that Lagarde engaged on topics such as access and educational opportunity, diversity and inclusion, the future of education, and lifelong learning.

“It was a privilege to have a conversation with a person who has such deep and authoritative insights into many global issues, who knows how the world works,” he said. “It was very good to be able to get a sense of the human being that is Christine Lagarde, one of the most powerful women in the world, yet she was there being open and honest and making strong statements on issues that are important to us all.”

Oh, and there’s one more thing: Lagarde likes quotes.

During the conversation, Lagarde alluded to several quotations. They included: “Make sure that you have big dreams so you don’t lose sight of them.”

She finished with: “In dreams begin responsibilities … don’t let the bastards get you down.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication