Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on leading, self-belief and empowerment

By Matt Plodzien posted 06-15-2022 13:49


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on leading, self-belief and empowerment
Beatriz Bagaces Serrano
Jr. Manager, 
Global Recruitment
IE University

In a recent collaboration, IE University and professional network giant, LinkedIn, partnered to create the Blue Talks—a series of conversations with influential thought leaders to promote positive change.

In the second installment, “Challenging Leadership,” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, two-time President of Liberia, was hosted by the president of IE University, Santiago Íñiguez. She shares her insights into the modern world and how she has stayed true to her principles despite navigating uncharted—and sometimes rough—waters. 

Sirleaf, as the first female head of state elected in Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is well-positioned to comment on the complexities of 21st-century life and politics both in Liberia and on the world stage. 

Following secondary school in Liberia, Sirleaf pursued higher education in the United States and started on the business side of government in the 1970s, serving as Minister of Finance as well as working for the World Bank. However, a turbulent political situation in Liberia meant that Sirleaf was arrested a number of times and exiled due to her outspokenness. She later returned following two civil wars and a coup d’état, where she was elected for two mandates as the nation’s president. 

Management is philosophy in action - Santiago Íñiguez 

Sirleaf describes her philosophy simply and succinctly: listen, learn, lead. She reminds herself and others that everything starts with listening; everyone can benefit from learning about others’ experiences and knowledge. Equipped with this understanding, one can lead by forming a team that works together towards a chosen goal. The opportunities to learn from others form an integral part of the process of becoming a leader. 

You improve yourself from the experiences of others, the knowledge of others, and interaction with others that enables you to understand their values 
- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf 

In many ways, Sirleaf’s life has exemplified the full magnitude of this philosophy. As if in a Greek epic, Sirleaf was prophesied for greatness by an elderly man who visited her home when she was just a baby. She laughs reflecting on this now, acknowledging that the journey to success has been a long one. Despite the numerous obstacles she faced, Sirleaf persevered and gained self-confidence in her ability to lead despite setbacks. 

Failure was a necessary part of success […] Failure enables you to see where your challenges have not been fully addressed, where your opportunities have not been fully recognized and taken  - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf 

For Sirleaf, failure not only tempers success but defines it and ultimately makes one a stronger, more efficient leader. Furthermore, it reminds us to be realistic in our goals. She notes that there are times when obstacles are simply too great to be overcome. When this happens, it is important to be open to making changes to one’s approach. 

Success is a dynamic process; revisions and changes and adjustments are also necessary - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf 

Despite having achieved a great deal of success in her life, Sirleaf emphasizes the importance of humility. She recalls her first time leading an African Unity meeting. Sirleaf went in “with a feeling of responsibility…a feeling that I represented the aspirations” of the other women attending the meeting. In what was—and remains—a male-dominated world, she felt the weight of her responsibility to represent and do justice for the women of Africa.

Indeed, Sirleaf has a legacy of remaining true to her values and speaking out whenever she perceives injustice. At times, this steadfastness landed Sirleaf in precarious positions and even in jail, but she does not regret her dedication to her beliefs. She observes that these experiences only gave her more strength and taught her both the realities of the world and how to speak on behalf of those who are marginalized. She also credits her experiences with improving her self-confidence by proving the capacity for one person to effect change.

You can speak out and, sometimes, you can make a difference. Sometimes you can change things - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf 

Living through these challenges has meant developing immense resilience. The tumultuous events that have defined Sirleaf’s life left her with the awareness that she and her nation have the capacity to rise again. She underlines the importance of this self-belief for leaders as it gives citizens encouragement and, especially, hope.

Discussing diversity—one of the greatest sources of challenges—Sirleaf describes the importance of learning to coexist as well as the ultimate enrichment that diversity brings to life. On a related note, Sirleaf discusses women’s empowerment as one of her greatest areas of concern. She cites numerous examples of women’s exclusion from decision-making positions and lays blame on patriarchal systems and laws that have failed to ensure equality.  

More women are rising above the systemic barriers they have faced, not because they lack the competence or the knowledge or the courage, but simply because systems have excluded them  - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf 

Indeed, creating opportunities and making space for diversity—be it in terms of gender, ethnicity, nationality or faith—is key to achieving greater parity and the enrichment Sirleaf feels is central to a healthy and successful life. She is optimistic that IE University and society more broadly are on the way there.

Haven’t seen the first episode yet? See what you missed here!