When Women Rule: 3 Leadership Lessons from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was a purpose-driven leader

Leadership effectiveness in a multicultural environment can be measured by a leader’s ability to achieve the impact he or she has the potential to make and be extremely successful and deeply fulfilled by what they do. A successful leader inspires and motivates others with an uncompromising sense of direction and purpose while being able to accept and tolerate the diverseness of those being led—each person is different and unique. These and many other transformational leadership abilities form the core of former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s approach to governing a deeply fractured society. Throughout her 12-year tenure, the 80-year-old proved to be loyal to a cause—to lead political, social and economic changes in her war-ravaged country. At the crux of this cause or purpose were the people of Liberia to whom she continued to demonstrate ingrained loyalty.

In 2005, the first female head of state of an African country was democratically elected to lead a society freshly emerging from a devastating civil conflict. The election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf symbolized the dawn of a new leadership era in Liberian and African politics. Her ascendancy to the most powerful office of a highly patriarchal society, exposed the current Liberian leader to enormous challenges because of how men in Liberia and many Third World countries react to power-sharing with females—a situation that clearly shows why Africa as a whole continues to struggle with accepting, building and sustaining a democracy. Amidst these fundamental challenges, President Johnson Sirleaf was exceedingly effective in restoring peace and advancing individual freedom across Liberia. 

Dark Years

For over a decade, Liberia was deeply buried in one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars that claimed the lives of thousands of Liberians and dispatched a million others to refugee camps in neighboring countries. A small state located along the coast of West Africa, Liberia was founded in 1822 as a haven for former slaves who, through the intervention of a number of stakeholders, had secured their freedom, and had been repatriated to Africa from the United States of America, under the auspices of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The freed African-Americans settled in Liberia and created a settler-colonial state that maintained a tenuous relationship with the larger indigenous population, a situation which resulted in a downward spiral of events that eventually sank the nation into a 14-year civil war. A peace pact signed in June 2003 restored relative calm to the nation through a cease-fire deal, in spite of grave psychological, ideological, economic and political effects that lingered. However, the level of transformation—encouraging tolerance across socio-cultural divides, while rigorously revamping the country’s deplorable infrastructures—that has taken place from then to now speaks volumes.

Granted, the issue of corruption remained a critical challenge throughout her 12 years in office. However, the mother of four sons displayed integrity, an unbending vigor for hard work and staunch passion for fiscal and economic discipline across line ministries as well as other government outlets.

Here are 3 leadership lessons from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf:

1. She was purpose-driven

She had a compelling vision for a changed war-torn society, a drive that sought to give voice to the voiceless while lifting Liberia and Liberians from the debris of war. This vision was manifested through the implementation of various strategic agendas directed at effectively leading her country to a positive change. She came into power at a time when Liberia was bleeding profusely from rampant corruption, defenseless infrastructures (deplorable road network, health and education) and massive unemployment (an economy in shambles)—residues of the civil war. Wounds of a protracted civil war were still very flesh. The stakes were very high and so were the possibility of a relapse back into conflict as scores of ex-combatants roamed the streets, waiting to either be rehabilitated and reintegrated or left to prey on an already divided society to cause chaos. These compounding issues, among many other challenges, did not require a quick fix; they required diligence, loyalty, passion, vision and creativity—leadership qualities demonstrated by the former Liberian leader throughout her reign.

2. She turned vision into action

She had the wherewithal to successfully turn her vision into action. She kicked off her presidency by taking specific, concrete actions toward achieving a few major leadership goals, one at a time. For instance, her agenda for social, political and economic changes was primarily focused on addressing basic [but very vital] issues: creating jobs for the youths (predominantly ex-combatants) and for the children who knew nothing but war, access to free and compulsory education.

3. She valued freedom

She was against tyranny. She encouraged free speech by providing a priceless chance for media practitioners, civil society actors and the general public to freely engage in public debates on topical social issues without the fear of persecution. She campaigned for respect and tolerance for religious diversity and gender democracy by demonstrating deep-seated passion for equity and equality at all levels.






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