Since being internationally recognized for co-leading a women’s movement that ended the most recent civil war in Liberia, Leymah Gbowee has hardly rested on her (Nobel) laurels. She continues to work for women, peace and security issues, founding The Gbowee Peace Foundation to provide education to women and underprivileged youth as well as serving as a global ambassador for Oxfam International and as a member of the UNHCR High Level Advisory Group on Gender, Forced Displacement and Protection.
Still, what Gbowee loves most is the time she spends in Africa working with young people to empower and inspire them. Here, the peace activist’s wise words for leaders of any age and situation.
Her grandmother’s maxim
“One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was hammered into my head as a young child. My grandmother would always say, ‘If your husband brings rice, you must bring the charcoal to cook the rice.’ That was her way of trying to teach us girls about empowerment, not to be dependent on a man, and to dominate our space.”
How to bring out the best in people
“One of the ways is to lead by example. I find myself being very hard on myself. I was taught that at the end of the day, I should feel that I’ve done nothing but my absolute best. Giving your best is the best motivation. As we say in the African feminist movement, this is about ‘walking your talk.’”
On being brave
“I’ve learned that it doesn’t mean that you have nothing to fear, but that you never allow fear to stop you and you still take the steps to do the things you believe in.”
How to spur on courage
“To motivate people to do what’s hard, I encourage them to tell themselves, ‘If this person can do it, I can do it, too.’ It’s about being able to overcome challenges and let people see how you accomplished that. I tell young girls, ‘You have no excuse to not succeed in life. I had a very tough life, and if God brought me here, I’m sure he can do it for you. If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for you also.’”
Advice for leaders
“If you aspire to be a leader, you have to be a servant of the people first. You also have to be present and available, responsible for the people that you intend to lead, and accountable to them for your actions. We’ve seen in recent times that sometimes people want to be accountable to no one but they still want to lead, which is not possible.”
The difference between men and women leaders
“Women leaders tend to be more thoughtful about the basic everyday things that matter to people. If you have a female leader, they will be making decisions at the same time as considering the impact those decisions will have on people’s lives.
“With men, it’s more about getting the job done. If you look at peace and security decision-making processes, when men argue about peace, they’re arguing about who can be the leader to do the job and not how the communities view that person. Men sometimes want development even at the detriment of people.”
On finding good mentors
“When I was growing up, my mentors were my grandmother, mother and all of the aunties around me. Today, I’ve learned a lot from rural women, especially in Africa, who have no stake in some of the processes they’re involved with but are still so engaged in building peace. Also, when I protested in Liberia with older women, it taught me a lot about leadership and about challenging the idea of what a woman is supposed to do.
“I would tell any young person seeking a mentor not to look to celebrities, but to people who work for change without seeking a spotlight.”