5 Lessons that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Can Teach Women Leaders

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf proved that women could run the world. Learn how she did that and how you can do it, too.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has performed many roles.

She was first just Ellen Johnson. Then she became a wife after marrying James Sirleaf at the age of 17.

And then she became a mother to her four sons.

But her roles don’t end there.

Despite her busy life as a homemaker, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is also a scholar. She managed to graduate college twice and earn a Master’s degree in Public Administration.

Next, for the entire nation of Liberia, Ellen was called Madam President for 12 years from 2006 to 2018. Johnson-Sirleaf bested despotic leaders and their efforts to quash her in a predominantly patriarchal society that just came out of war. And in her first three years in office, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf erased nearly $5 billion of Liberia’s foreign debt, which paved the way for the country’s economic recovery by 2011.

Because of her achievements in forwarding democracy and keeping the peace, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was also dubbed the ‘Iron Lady of Africa’, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and recipient of the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace among others.

But perhaps Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s most valuable contribution to human society is proving that women can achieve incredible feats regardless of who they are and where they came from.

Ellen proves that women can run the world.

In fact, after her stint in politics, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf focused her sharp mind and full attention on empowering women across Africa through the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development.

So today, I am happy to share with you five lessons from Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf so that you, too, can make your mark in the world.

The Lessons

#1 – Put Education First

When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf first took the reins of the Liberian government, she was in quite a pinch. Back then, Liberia was just trying to get back on its feet after a 15-year civil war. The entire nation was on an economic collapse. Vital establishments such as schools and hospitals were looted if not destroyed. Infrastructure was damaged, and because of all this, people weren’t happy.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf saw that Liberia needed many things. But she couldn’t provide them all at once. Doing so would be unfair to the Liberian people who entrusted their nation to a woman for the first time in history.

So she made the hard decision to prioritize education.

Sirleaf said that she did this to provide a foundation for her country’s future and give hope to the youth who were all too familiar with war. She wanted to make learning a birthright for all the citizens of her country. That’s why she went on to build nearly 200 schools during the first two years of her presidency.

To quote the Iron Lady of Africa:

“The future belongs to us because we have taken charge of it.”

Putting education first is always the right move for yourself, your career, and the people around you. As a woman leader, you must put education first to secure your future and the future of the people you care about, whether they’re your team, followers, or constituents.

#2 – Learn How to Accept Help

The Nobel peace laureate knows that she couldn’t run a country successfully all by herself.

So for her entire 12 years in government, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf accepted help from her loyal advisers and international organizations who offered aid to restore Liberia to its former glory.

She even admitted that Liberia would never have recovered as it has on its own without foreign aid.

Now you don’t need to be in a crisis just to learn how to accept help. You just need to acknowledge your limitations and how other people’s contributions could maximize the potential of your vision and talents. You need to surround yourself with people who care enough about you or your cause and allow them to give you a helping hand.

This is all the more true now that we are slowly but surely recovering from the economic effects of the global pandemic.

That’s why Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf reminds us:

“What’s needed now is equity. What’s needed now is solidarity… Building equal and inclusive societies is more urgent than ever before.”

#3 – The Simplest Step Can Be An Epic Catalyst

For Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the most straightforward step that made her become the inspiring technocrat that she is today is going to college.

At first, she thought of getting her bachelor’s degree just to catch up to her peers going places to study. While she was back home, tending to her husband and four kids.

This desire sparked her interest to pursue further learning. In turn, her continued studies in Economics and Public administration ultimately inspired her to seek the presidency to better their nation.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf encourages us also to take the first step towards reaching our goals.

This simple step could be deciding to pursue that Master’s degree…

Finally starting that new business…

Or simply finding our voice to speak out and be heard.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf herself invites us to start doing this today.

“To girls and women everywhere, I issue a simple invitation. My sisters, my daughters, my friends; find your voice.”

#4 – Difference is Strength

British author C.S. Lewis said:

“Don’t doubt your value. Don’t run from who you are.”

Hence, your difference is not something to run away from. It is something you must embrace.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf lived by this quote and embraced her difference in every way possible.

Ellen Johnson made her difference known when she was young by being one of the few girls who played football.

When she became a political leader, she stood up for what she believed in, even if it was different from her party or the norm.

And she persevered on becoming the President of Liberia for two straight terms despite heavy opposition and criticism.

Johnson-Sirleaf says her difference and wanting to make a difference pushed her forward, which in the end benefitted her beloved country and her people.

#5 – Rise Above Fear

In Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s own words:

“Liberia was the poster child for death and destruction on every TV around the world.”

And it was indeed so.

Before Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf got elected, Liberia was in pretty bad shape. In fact, her political leaning at that time forced her to go on exile during the presidency of her predecessor, Charles Taylor.

Even when she became president, Johnson-Sirleaf had to deal and barely escape a murderous coup d’etat led by her political rival and former Liberian president Samuel Doe.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg regarding the challenges Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had to face as a woman leader.

But that did not stop her from achieving incredible feats as the country’s leader. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf knew she was elected for a reason, and that reason was to rid her country of poverty and restore peace to her nation.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf reminds us that the road to success is paved with tons of trials and tribulations. We may not experience the same amount of hardships that she faced, but that does not mean we won’t encounter our share of troubles along the way.

What is important is to stand firm in what we believe in and always move forward.

As Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf puts it:

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”

Never Waver

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf proves that nothing is impossible for us women if we put our minds to it— especially if it is done for the right reasons.

Africa’s Iron Lady also proved that unwavering courage and resilience are necessary to reach new heights in whatever field you want to get into.

If you want further guidance on becoming as steadfast as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, feel free to book my speaking services at your next event.