Ellen Johnson Sirleaf | Leading Like a Lady

Lesson: Look like a man, think like a woman.

(Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

You might call Ellen Johnson Sirleaf an “alpha female”, and that wouldn’t be your fault. Though you’d be wrong.

James Bond wishes his plots were as thick as Johnson Sirleaf’s life. Reading her memoir This Child Will Be Great is more than a thrill ride. But to call her an alpha female cheapens the magnitude of the events in her life and oversimplifies the purpose behind the choices we must make to lead.

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Have you ever wanted to be an alpha female, and did you ask yourself why? It’s one of those labels so overused that we say it without a strong sense of what it actually means. 

You probably said it because you want to be rich or successful, dominate anything you pursue, or to be the one in control. Psychologists say these tend to describe the alpha male, and that women wear these traits more often when they’re desperate. They want their boss to take them seriously, or they need that promotion to cover the extra childcare costs, for example.

Moreover, the alpha is his (or her) first priority. And that’s where the problem lies. Self-preservation is a natural instinct, so there’s nothing extraordinary about it. 

But, at least for the first 30 years of her career, Johnson Sirleaf proved herself extraordinary. It wouldn’t be a typical African politics story if Johnson Sirleaf’s legacy wasn’t mired in controversy. There isn’t a doubt, though, that she gave up several chances to put herself first for the sake of prioritizing others. 

In her book, she goes into elaborate details about the threats to her life. She was an activist under probably the most vicious political regimes in African history (don’t skip reading about it). Of course, she wasn’t the only one who did this in Liberia, male or female, during that time. It was especially abnormal for a woman to be in the position she was, or get the amount of attention she did for speaking against tyrants who didn’t make idle death threats. 

I see myself in Johnson Sirleaf’s boldness not because she’s a woman, or because I imagine I’d be just as brave to call bullshit in that hostile environment. Instead, I see her life as a reprimand to me and everyone who shy away from this and needs to know that this is what it takes to stop injustice from happening, whatever your gender. Oppression’s oxygen is silence. We all have a moral obligation to speak up, even if it means neglecting our natural instincts to lay down our lives for others.

What’s powerful about learning this lesson from a woman like Johnson Sirleaf is knowing that, whether she lived or died, her story would no doubt push others to not let her sacrifice go in vain. Her “alpha” traits didn’t just force greater international pressure to stop one of Africa’s worst civil wars. It told African women, specifically, that their voices were an existential threat to the status quo.

This couldn’t be clearer than when Johnson Sirleaf writes about a clash between her and then U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who didn’t appreciate her strong opposition to Charles Taylor, the notorious blood diamond dictator:

I was astonished. There was no way in the world I would work with Charles Taylor after all the death and destruction he had caused…and I told President Carter as much, in no uncertain terms…. 

“Do you really think I’m going to identify myself with that?” I asked Mr. Carter…I think the president got a little miffed with me because of that.

It took another six years before Johnson Sirleaf would be heard. One can only wonder why Carter or anyone else would be annoyed more by her resistance than by the blatant evidence of Taylor’s despotism. Regardless, Johnson Sirleaf’s persistence signaled to Liberian women that they couldn’t risk letting another dangerous man get the benefit of the international community’s doubt.

Let’s be clear: we shouldn’t hate men. We should hate what they get away with —which is, at best, demanding more for mediocre effort, or at worst giving them full reign despite how their actions harm others. 

In a world where a proven murderer (a man) leads a country into years of senseless massacre, while a political prisoner turned first woman president in Africa is immediately harassed when accused of a fraction (nepotism and counterfeiting) of that chaos, introspection once again helps us understand what’s best when leading like a lady.

Unlike Okonjo-Iweala’s book, I was inundated (in a good way) with Johnson Sirleaf’s honest self-reflection. If there were one tip I’d give to the wannabe alpha females, based on her life, it would be this: you can try to look like a man, but at least have the sense to think like a woman.

Let’s say “looking like a man” includes the tough exterior, the no-bullshit attitude, and the fearlessness in demanding what you want, nothing less. Embodying that put Johnson Sirleaf’s life at risk countless times. And her shrewdness in wielding it ultimately saved her.

Too many close calls make it impossible to believe she’s still here at 81 years old. From coercing assassins to jail her instead of killing her, then watching other men in the same prison executed while she’s released the next day, she’s lucky to be alive, let alone be an elder. All of this even after standing her ground and refusing to bend to the will of then Liberian dictator Samuel Doe. 

Her quiet confidence was the trick. Calm and sensible defiance —which, by the way, is NOT usually an alpha trait— was the ironic, stronger counterbalance to the braggadocio and violent threats of her enemies. “They sicken of the calm who know the storm,” is how Dorothy Parker once described it. Several times Johnson Sirleaf recounts how reminding her assigned assassins of their mothers, or treating them like sons by bringing them water or just talking to them, were the little things that meant the difference between being left alone or raped, beaten, or murdered.

Listen, women— better yet, black women— are asked to be the voice of reason in unfair and unsafe environments constantly. I get that and even spoke about that here. It may sound like this is another plea for us to be the bigger person and execute sound leadership at the risk of losing ourselves or our lives.

I can’t help thinking about the amount of carnage we’ve seen in Africa, and how in the midst of so many dying for no reason we need leaders to make themselves a purposeful sacrifice so that something worthwhile comes out of it. 

I wish I could tell you that you can have it all— the kids, the husband, the corporate office, the smooth-sailing peace of mind and wealth. That’s what the alpha female probably wants to hear. But maybe the greatest thing you could give to prove your worth is not in what you gain by living, but what your life inspires others to do.


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