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Leaders who have empowered

Here I’d like to explore the approach to empowerment of leaders from history. Interested? Sign up to take this course!
A young person dressed in business suit wears a homemade jetpack and flying goggles, raises his arms in the afternoon sun while running to take off into the air on an outcropping above the surf. This young entrepreneur is ready to take his new business to

Here I’d like to explore the approach to empowerment of leaders from history.

Wangari Maathai

The very first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai, was a political and environmental activist whose initiative of planting trees resulted in her assisting women in her country, Kenya, to plant over 20 million of them.

She then founded The Green Belt Movement and inspired other people in surrounding African countries to keep up the spirit of planting trees and protecting the environment. This movement also helped to fight corruption in Africa, and sought to empower women.

Maathai was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and valued furthering her education. She also fought to protect the land and the rights of people living in poverty in her country.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a US Supreme Court Justice before her death in 2020. Fuelled by her own experiences of sexism, she used her profession as a lawyer to advocate for gender equality in the United States.

She volunteered at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and was central to the founding of their Women’s Rights Project in 1971. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court, making her the second woman to be appointed. Her work in gender justice has inspired generations of women to break barriers as she helped to pass several laws in an effort to achieve gender equality. Her work served to empower others.

Both of these examples demonstrate a leader’s vision of empowerment in fact, and we can only assume in their day-to-day lives they empowered others around them. Looking at famous leaders and trying to identify ones who specifically empowered those around them as they worked towards the realisation of their vision, I came across:

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first democratically-elected female head of state.

She was elected in 2006, two years after Liberia’s decade-long civil war came to an end, and promoted democracy, peace, justice, and women’s empowerment as head of state for the following 12 years. She went on to lead Liberia through reconciliation and recovery after the war, as well as the country’s Ebola outbreak.

Sirleaf is one of just two African women to have won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in reconciliation and rebuilding the country. I remember coming across her some years back, when I visited the country, and heard of the fears of the people about what would happen when she finally had to step down as leader. She was well-loved and well-respected. She has been given numerous awards including civilian medals of honour from the US and France.

On accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, you can hear Johnson Sirleaf’s passion for women’s empowerment, but there are also clues as to how she empowers others generally. She recognises others who have won awards, others on the stage, the teachers who helped her, and in fact all women everywhere who have contributed to women’s empowerment without any recognition and sometimes at great cost. In this way she demonstrates her tendency to empower others, whilst still being highly respected for her own skills and strengths.

A lesser-known figure, but one from the business world, is Atlassian’s CMO, Robert Chatwani. The company’s website describes him in this way: “[He] follows the principles of servant leadership, and strives to be a Level 5 Leader, according to the principles outlined in Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great.” … “First and foremost, I’m committed to the outcome we can achieve as a team. I’m focused on the shared purpose, but agnostic about who plays which role or how the work actually gets done.” The key is to empower each person to do the best work that they can do. He constantly thinks about how he can help his team learn and grow so they can have a bigger impact. Robert keeps his ear to the ground for opportunities to connect people across his organization in a few different ways. He stops for random chats in the hallway to hear about what individuals at all levels are working on (the key here is actually listening). He eats lunch in the communal kitchen, and makes himself available for walks to talk about the long-term vision of the organization. He also sends out a monthly note with comments on the strategy of the marketing team at large, highlights of various team wins, and recommended reading from his personal book list.”

Empowerment, listening, communication, celebration.

And a last note on empowerment, relating to gender diversity:

“To me, empowerment means if a woman has her voice and her agency. Can she say what she thinks needs to be said in any setting? Does she have the agency to make decisions on behalf of herself and her family? If you sit on a corporate board and you don’t think you can voice what you’re seeing on that board or in that corporation that is wrong, then you don’t have your voice … When a woman in the U.S. gets on a corporate board, when there’s one of her, she’s not going to make a change. When there are two or three, then she has agency and she has her voice because there’s a power in the collective. Then they get the other men on the board with her who are also saying, ‘Hey, we’re seeing the same things,’ and they come forward as a group. There’s a power in the collective of the group. Men have had these natural networks for a long time. Women have tons of social networks, but it’s not until you get them together, and get them together in the right way, that they give women their voice and their agency.” — Melinda Gates, Philanthropist: The Cut, 2016

This is a call to men on boards to show their leadership by creating the right circumstances to empower (and benefit from) women.

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