Charlotte Seck & the New Feminist Normal | Leading Like a Lady

My Leading Like a Lady series was inspired by an article I originally read in Forbes. The article pointed out that, in the middle of the worst global pandemic in modern history, countries with the least number of deaths from the COVID-19 crisis had women as heads of state.

Ironically, that article is now a perfect example of the new normal I hoped we’d avoid if we learned the right lessons in leadership.

Charlotte Seck, a Senegalese writer, claims the Forbes article was ripped off of her piece published in the francophone African magazine AMINA:

Finding the “receipts” (see below) that support Charlotte Seck’s claim was frustrating because it looks like it would make “leading like a lady” sound like a joke. But there’s an opportunity here to address the other elephant in the room of gender politics: feminism.

Amina’s article, published 3 days before Forbes.

Seck’s article, posted on Amina Magazine’s Facebook page 3 days before the Forbes article.

The Forbes article.

In the old normal, lifting material from lesser-known content creators was happening too often. What’s fascinating is that celebrities or influencers doing this thought that they could get away with in, in the internet age where everything is Google-able and screenshots/timestamps is all too easy to find as proof you did wrong.

What’s incredible is how this seems to happen more to black/African women. Sadly, it’s other women who are guilty of doing this to them. Even the black women who coined the academic term for this behavior have their names conveniently left out of work that never cites them as the source of their research.

I wasn’t one of those who worried about using the word feminism as a black woman. Unfortunately, this Forbes issue is forcing me to reconsider this or frankly any other word that tries to generalize women empowerment.

It’s clear now that the word feminism stressed the rights and value of white women without paying enough attention to the double whammy women of any other race experience. Bluntly, black women didn’t think feminism fully described the situation of being hated or ignored not just because you’re not a man, but because you aren’t white. Speaking from the American perspective, there’s clear evidence that black women suffer the most inequities when you compare data on our net worth, annual salaries, mortality rates, and investment opportunities to the data on white men. In a speech I gave almost a year ago, I brought up how African women fare even worse because speaking up on gender rights is a literal threat to their lives.

Leading like a lady won’t lead us anywhere until we grapple with this. More reason for the introspection I talked about in my last post. Nothing in the new normal will be revolutionary if we don’t deal with the weakness inside of us that finds it more convenient to cheat and steal than to build and let grow.

There’s no reason why Ms. Wittenberg-Cox couldn’t give a few words of encouragement (or thanks) towards Ms. Seck for starting a conversation, while building on that conversation with the experiences that shape her opinions on the matter. As someone who touts herself as a successful CEO with mentions in some of the most prominent platforms, she would lose nothing and gain more by sharing her stage with someone who’s clearly her equal in mindset.

At this rate, the new normal is looking extra cannibalistic. I personally don’t have a taste for eating people alive. But with situations like these, I’m worried I’ll have to build up that appetite in order to survive wherever we’re heading to next.

Or (and I pray this is the case), we can use the collective pause we’re on to do the transformative work we didn’t feel we needed or had time to do when the old normal consumed us.

To build our attitudes from scratch, looking at how our old normal got us into this mess and building a new framework that gets us out of it while preventing it from ever happening again.

To let new thought leaders grow and share their ideas, especially when we see enough value in them to adopt (or forge) as our own.

I only heard about Charlotte Seck was because someone in my women’s professional group found Seck’s Facebook screenshots and shared it with us. At the time I’m writing this, there’s no statement (apology or otherwise) from Forbes or from the women alleged to have copied Seck’s work while trying to promote women’s integrity in positions of power.

Thankfully, this controversy isn’t in the examples of women leaders recognized in Seck’s article. If there’s going to be any value in recognizing them and the differences between women and men in leading under pressure, the new feminists also need to call BS on the women that make this work harder than it already is.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala | Lessons on Leading Like a Lady

Lesson 1: Finding Yourself.

The proudest moment of my life was when I decided to go to therapy.

One of the transformational things I learned in therapy was the power of being vulnerable. In most cultures, men are taught to hide their feelings, while women are expected to show them more freely. At the same time, society would tell you that women are hysterical, exaggerated, and tough to deal with whenever they do express their feelings. 

Therapy helped me unlearn this. It took a lot of work to convince myself I wasn’t “crazy” for sharing how I felt. 

Learning more constructive ways to express emotion was a game-changer. I could show up as the same person in both my personal and professional interactions with people, in my authentic skin. Sometimes I felt taken advantage of. Yet ironically, I’m told this is the main reason I gained the loyalty and trust of my students, clients and friends.

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I thought about all of this as I read Fighting Corruption is Dangerous. I admire ambitious women, and having a role model like Dr. Okonjo-Iweala who goes above and beyond in her career is undoubtedly inspiring. 

The book would be a great read for a political science class, as it was less about Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and more of a window into the recklessness of Nigerian politics. While I can appreciate that, I’m hoping one day we get a book focused less on her explaining herself and more on how she became aware of herself.

My therapy sessions involved a lot of self-awareness exercises, and that produced the greatest gains for me. Confronting the trauma, the insecurities, and the circumstances surrounding my decisions and how I processed people’s behaviors towards me built enormous strength. I still have a lot to learn, but this newfound strength made it easier for me to talk about my experiences with a lot less bias, and use that neutral viewpoint to tell the truth about myself and others, mentoring them through sharing both the good and the bad about my life decisions.

I desperately searched for that in Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s book. To me, she’s in the heavyweight championships and I’m still on the high school wrestling team. I wanted to be mentored, to hear what someone like her does to stay emotionally and mentally fit at that undeniably stressful level.

We have so few (African) women breaking through the barriers Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has been able to, so their workout routine for vulnerable leadership is vital. We may not know them personally, and as major public figures, they may feel they want to keep some piece of themselves private from the world. 

But if Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is asking future leaders to take on the dangerous work of fighting corruption, we need her and leaders like her to be raw, transparent, and honest in their introspection. That was a missed opportunity in Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s book, leaving me with more questions than answers about her role in transforming Nigerian politics. So I tried reading between the lines to see what lessons I could pull from her experience. 

Lesson 2: Credible over Exceptional.

To be exceptional is to be rare, above average, a symbol of what’s considered peak greatness. Being credible is leaving no room for any reasonable person to doubt or mistrust you.

Ideally, great leaders could be both. But from Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s book, it seems the more power you go after, the more difficult it gets to be both. 

It’s easy to see when you examine her boss, President Johnathan, someone clearly not as exceptional as she was.  His own political party admitted he was average at best. Nothing about his career before and in politics overwhelmingly proves he was qualified for the highest office in Nigeria.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s close friends warned her that Johnathan appointed her to give him the credibility he lacked, according to Chapter 2 of her book. That’s too obvious even for someone looking from the outside to ignore. But she wrote that the personal attacks she received in the media, and the warning from her friends, still pushed her to leave her prestigious role at the World Bank to return to Nigeria:

I would not be easily intimidated. In fact, attacks had the effect of tilting me toward accepting the job [as Finance Minister]. To some extent, it was defiance.

I can name too many examples of more educated and experienced women settling to work in environments or with people nowhere near their level of qualifications. Maybe Dr. Okonjo-Iweala felt she could steal the show, taking all the (deserved) credit for transforming a government that the international community gave up on. But it was a miscalculated risk, one that led her to try to redeem herself by writing this book.

The book ends by asking more young, rising leaders to take the same risk as her to put an end to corruption in African politics. But with the lack of introspection and the clear examples of her lending her exceptional reputation casually to people who misused it several times, I wondered how inspired anyone could be to take on that challenge.  

I say this with a lot of reservations because, as I said before, very few women break down the barriers Dr. Okonjo-Iweala broke through in her career. I don’t mean that fewer women should pursue leadership roles, or that they shouldn’t aim for the highest levels. We clearly need more women on prominent stages so that the world sees the value we bring as level-headed leaders.

I’ve been in so many situations where I was asked to join a team or take on a project where I would clearly have to take responsibility for the outcomes. And several times I’ve seen people try to sabotage me by spreading rumors or trying to force me into situations where it would seem I was culpable for something I didn’t do. Just write this instead of that in the report, so we don’t lose our donors. Don’t share this or that with the auditors. I’ve been asked to say things I knew were false or promote agendas I knew would hurt people unnecessarily. When I knew doing this would keep me in a job, or even get me a promotion, I still opted to say no.

That wasn’t easy, and I felt I’ve paid the price for that longer than I should. And it made me question if I’d ever rise to levels I aspired to, to become exceptional, without having to give up doing what I knew was right.

But I’d rather give up an opportunity to prove myself exceptional if it meant I didn’t sacrifice my credibility. And before I find myself making that choice again, I desperately want to hear more examples of other women in similar situations who found a way to achieve greatness in spite of the pressures around them.

I don’t believe Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was involved in any of the things she’s been accused of during her tenure as Finance Minister. I also can see how her critics make it easy for some people to think otherwise. After reading the book twice, I couldn’t ignore multiple examples of unkept promises by President Johnathan that were the conditions Dr. Okonjo-Iweala asked for, at minimum, before she’d decide to join his team. Then there were blatant examples of his closest officials blocking Dr. Okonjo-Iweala from getting any work done. Worse of all, it was clear that she was meant to take the fallout for any missteps from the administration, leading to her reputation being tainted and her family’s life put at risk (see Chapter 1 of her book).

Ultimately, I’m thankful for her service and think the work she’s doing now on the board of amazing organizations is far more fruitful than what she did or could have done as Finance Minister. In hindsight, I wonder if she would still take the job based on early red flags that were so glaring. And I wonder if she felt having to defend herself constantly in murky situations ended up being worth the violence she experienced trying to serve her country.

But most of all, her book is evidence to me that being emotionally aware means noticing when we’ve been tricked or pressured to go against our gut feelings. Even if Dr. Okonjo-Iweala doesn’t say it explicitly, I suspect that’s what she needed to but didn’t do when she agreed to join Goodluck Johnathan’s administration. 

Being emotionally transparent means willing to share what you noticed about yourself honestly, so that those looking up to you know the warning signs to search for within themselves to avoid the same fate. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala ends her book suggesting we give future “corruption fighters” the data and think-tank fellowships to build their skill, but also get the “needed breathing space away from their adversaries” and “financial support for their families.” But what good does data or a fellowship program do if those future corruption fighters don’t build the emotional intelligence they need to cope with threats to their integrity? How do we encourage fewer people to give in to temptation without baring our souls and sharing our journeys to overcome it?

Fighting corruption is indeed dangerous, and emotional awareness and transparency is the most powerful weapon we have against it. Now more than ever, we need more leaders with the courage to show us how to wield it.

Leading Like a Lady

Who do you see when you look in the mirror?

Some women have a hard time answering that. 

And even when we find the courage to answer the question with “a queen!” or “a boss!”, it’s normal for us to expect violent attacks for that self-confidence.

There’s so much information out there showing that this is a self-defeating attitude, not just for women but for everyone. Study after study shows that if we’d get rid of gender norms that tell women to be timid or less ambitious, way more people would be safer and richer.

As I’m writing this, we’re experiencing the worst pandemic since 1918. And while tens of thousands of people are dying in some of the wealthiest countries in the world, far fewer are dying in the countries led by women

If we go back into the archives, this article by Newsweek talks about the added value of women to a group called “the Next Eleven” (countries on the rise).  The prediction was if they increased the number of women in the workforce back in 2010 (after the Great Recession) they would also increase the amount of money each household earned in the countries by at least 14 percent in 2020.

2020 is here, and if we look at just one of those countries (Nigeria), we see that ignoring that advice not only increased unemployment rates but kept per capita income (i.e. the income earned per person) from growing fast enough to stop the rate of poverty from growing.

“Act like a lady…”

So what’s the deal? Everyone wants to be rich, right? So why aren’t we heeding this advice? Why aren’t we empowering more women to lead?

Our way of life will never be the same once the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 is over. Lives and billions of dollars were lost carelessly. We have never been in a more collectively desperate situation across the whole world.

Yet, I can still feel a few vices hanging on & threatening to follow us into our post-COVID life. I can literally feel the misogyny in the air, choking me and refusing to let up.

It’s as if screwing over women is a natural “fight or flight” reaction when we’re in times like this. At the business level, I’ve seen men suddenly change their tone about promises they made to give more power and opportunities to women on their teams. At the political level, you see some of the most powerful men in the world (or maybe just one) blatantly insulting the intelligence of women working tirelessly to save people’s lives.

Despite all the evidence that says otherwise, women are automatically assumed to be weak and incompetent. Doing anything “like a girl” or a woman is still the worst insult you can hurl at a man. “Act like a lady” is the universal code for “you must have forgotten your place”, a warning to any woman trying too hard to prove that you can do anything a man can do. And a threat that you better not continue.

In the Harvard Business Review article “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic put it this way:

pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent…

This tells me that acting like a lady really means being too humble. It could also mean not taking up the responsibility of being the true leaders our world needs to save itself from…itself. 

I know it can be difficult and dangerous to speak out against unfair gender norms. But at this point, when too much is on the line, we can’t leave the work of transforming the world to those without a clue on how to do it right.

See us as a threat or get on our level.

I know I’m scared, and can only imagine how scary it is for many women around the world. Thankfully, there are some women who’ve gone before me and took the risks needed to teach me how to start on this journey.

So for the next four to six weeks, my goal is to read a book every week and share the stories of those women. Summarize the lessons learned and talk about how I’m going to ACTUALLY put them in action. There’s no point in reading and learning if we don’t find the courage to claim our positions as the changemakers the world needs.

This isn’t just for women, though. If you’re a man reading this, listen in: there’s no point in ignoring the facts any longer. The only real threat to your power, your wealth, or frankly your life, is the arrogance that makes you think you can get away without bringing us along. 

I’m especially talking to the men in Africa, my motherland. As a Nigerian-American, I know too well the stress black women of the diaspora experience trying to figure out who they are personally and professionally. And I want all my black (African) men to realize that we’re better partners than servants. We’re not trying to take away your manhood by taking charge.

We don’t want to scare you from sharing your honest thoughts, either. What makes you nervous about a woman in a position of power? And how can we show you it’s not as scary as you think?

As I share my thoughts and summaries from the books I read, I absolutely need you to leave comments in the posts. This is a conversation, not a lecture. Dialogue is the way to stop seeing us as a threat and, instead, get on the same level of understanding.

Who do you want to see in the mirror?

Isolation is giving me an umpteenth time to ask and answer these questions. But truthfully, I’ve known the answers all along. 

The problem is that, even with the answers, the person in the mirror hasn’t changed. She’s still trembling from the hurt of past experiences, and not forging a path to rising to the position society needs her to take on. I’m 100% sure this is true for most women reading this.

More of us need to “act like a lady”, stepping up the quality of our character, integrity, and skills to finally live up to our potential. By the end of the series, we need a new definition of leading like a boss (lady).

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With All Due Respect…Grow Up: Open Letter to African Leadership

There’s an old parenting adage that says if your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?

As much as my 12-year-old self cringed when I heard it, my now 30-something year-old self has to admit that my mom was right. You don’t need to copy everything your friends or peers do or tell you to do.

African leaders would be wise to take this same advice. Amid this COVID-19 crisis, many new buzzwords abound like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing”. It’s no question that we all need to take actions to reduce if not prevent the peak of the virus’ spread, but quick research will tell you that social distancing (used usually to describe isolating in one’s home indefinitely) is not the one and only method for achieving this.

Evidence from South Korea proves the point. Yet most African nations decided to mimic Europe and the U.S. by mandating citizens to stay at home and close all non-essential businesses to contain the contagious disease. 

Now I’ve never been president of a country, and the extent of my public health service ends at coughing into my elbow. But that’s what makes this more frightening – that a basic person like me can immediately see the problem here. One of the basic qualities missing in African leadership is the instinct to make data-driven decisions. 

We have a habit of watching what the “cool kids” are doing (i.e. the West) and just copying exactly what they do. We pay no attention to context or to designing solutions that work in our best interest. It’s like we’re trying so hard to impress, hoping the West is flattered more by our imitation rather than our efficacy.

I was triggered to write this by an op-ed published recently by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the latest adoptee of the Western powers-that-be who look for a poster child to represent their ideal Africa. I don’t hold any bad feelings towards Ahmed. However, I got uncomfortable reading his piece for a couple of reasons.

The first had to do with tone. Frankly, I’m tired of us playing to this notion of African countries being helpless unless the mightier “developed” countries pity us. Ahmed wrote, “African

countries…lack the wherewithal to make similarly meaningful interventions” mitigating the consequences of the coronavirus spread, and that “the G20 must provide collective leadership” as one of the most pressing solutions to the crisis.

Meanwhile, the G20 consists majorly of Eurocentric nations (including U.S., UK, and Germany) and just one African country (South Africa), an anomalous representative of the continent for reasons not beneficial in situations like this.

It worries me that prominent leaders or Nobel laureates would make the rookie mistake of discussing Africa as a monolith, rather than 54 independent states with nuanced environments. The way a pandemic hits South Africa will be very different from the damage it does in the Central African Republic.

So if the Prime Minister is suggesting that South Africa be the mouthpiece for the continent at the metaphorical cool kids’ table (i.e the G20), that suggestion is myopic in that the one country cannot comprehensively speak on a strategy that best prepares all of Africa for this type of public health/economic disruption. 

And if he’s suggesting that the G20 as a whole be the global mouthpiece for how to prep for situations like this, he’s jumping off the bridge with friends, just because they say so.

Recommendations like the one from the Prime Minister jump the gun, bypassing the most pressing first ask anyone should really make: what can African leaders do for themselves with what they have NOW?

We can admit that, historically, the Western world is the lead culprit for putting African nations in a vulnerable position financially and politically. TLDR, watch this great documentary on that issue. 

But that does not absolve the faults of African leaders.

By faults, I’m not just referring to that deference African leaders show to the West or African leaders’ inexcusable mistreatment of their citizens. Those aside, logic would suggest that the developed world would see how neglecting public health strategies in African nations would eventually have an impact on them, given the growth of globalized trade and travel.

How many times has the West proven that common sense isn’t so common? We have undeniable evidence in the way the United States (now the epicenter of COVID-19) wasn’t prepared to prevent or manage the stress of a deadly contagion on its healthcare system.

So when the cool kids are busy getting themselves out of trouble, what do we (Africa) do? Twiddle our thumbs, or use our own brains to self-regulate?

It’s fair to continue demanding relief from what essentially equates to predatory loan agreements keeping African countries crippled with debt. But until that utopian moment when the West stops asking us for our lunch money, African heads of state need to examine their own insecurities and, frankly, find the maturity to hold themselves accountable for what they know needs to be done.

For example, South Africa has had an ongoing debate about providing universal healthcare to its 57 million population for 13 years. The biggest concern? Not how much it will cost, or where the funding will come. It’s whether South Africa’s leadership has the self-control to not pocket the funds for themselves as they did with the country’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Here’s another wise quote, taken from India’s assassinated prime minister Indira Gandhi:

“Beware of ministers who can do nothing without money, and those who want to do everything with money.”

I’m not naive to think that Africa doesn’t have a SERIOUS cash problem created by colonialism. But I’m wary of those who keep trying to guilt-trip the West into charity. Especially when they refuse to ask why Africa hasn’t learned how to walk on its own two feet.

What do you think?

I’m thinking of starting a business of my own that solves this problem.

I feel the same way — tired of lower standards that keep Africans at risk economically.

I don’t think you’re seeing the full picture, and I have a different point of view.