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.

2 Replies to “Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala | Lessons on Leading Like a Lady”

  1. I believe fighting corruption begins by self-introspection, in simple terms, just being honest and one being in a position to reflect a true self-image in a mirror in terms of characters. Many African countries have lost this reputation, losing the glory, therefore, turning many African countries to the status quo of under-develop. We believe we can redeem the lost glory giving the women the frontline because they understand the labor pain we undergo has the children born on the continent.

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