‘The thing about leadership is that you have to be prepared to fail and start again,’ says Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She is the living example of perseverance. She was jailed three times, had to flee the country and campaign more than once before becoming the first elected female head of state in Africa. For 12 years she presided over Liberia, a country and a people destroyed by two decades of conflict.
‘I knew I was going into a difficult situation, but nobody could have done it but a woman,’ she states boldly. ‘Women are equal in knowledge, experience and courage, but they also have a concern about human life, about family matters. Women have empathy, and can negotiate with strength and compassion at the same time. With that you bring an extra sensitivity to a leadership position.’ This turned out to be the magic key that rallied the women of the country behind her, who had never voted because it never made any difference. ‘Let’s say I could make a convincing case that I was the right person for the job,’ she says with a disarming smile.
Recently, the Nobel Peace Prize winner addressed the launch of the Women’s Global Alliance for Peace, which I had the privilege to attend. Initiated by conflict resolution NGO International Crisis Group, the Alliance aims to be the world’s first network of women philanthropists who support women and girls affected by conflict, and the women working to prevent it.
‘Leadership is taking position, standing out and defending yourself,’ Johnson Sirleaf states. ‘Each time I moved up, that new position strengthened me to seek more.’ During her long road to power, the now 82-year old strategized, revised, adjusted and kept going. She needed a strong team in order to disrupt the status quo the way she did, but also enough followers to tip the scales. ‘I could never have done it alone. With people behind you who believe in you, follow you, who share your values and vision, and are as committed as you are, you can overcome any obstacle,’ she says.
All leaders face scrutiny, but women who stand out get more than their fair share of criticism, resulting in being dragged down and having to play ‘dirty politics’. This is not what women tend to want to do, according to Johnson Sirleaf. ‘But women have to accept it as they break through into those positions, until we are at the numbers where the focus is no longer on you because you’re a woman, but because you’re a professional, because you’re a leader.’
Her advice to cope with the pushback: ‘Once you’ve established yourself, determine for yourself: I’m a leader. I believe in what I do. I stand by my position and I’m not afraid. And even if you are, don’t show it! You’ll find that acceptance comes.’
If you’ve followed me, you know that I strongly believe that women can and should make a difference because they’re women, in any field. It’s time to value what women contribute.
Here is more information about the Women’s Global Alliance for Peace, if you want to find out how you can contribute to world peace. And if you want to contribute at the highest level in your own world, but feel that you can’t fully shine, get a free copy of The One Essential Secret About Impact.
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