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If you like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's story, you might also like:
Maya Angelou,
Benazir Bhutto,
Jimmy Carter,
Hamid Karzai,
Coretta Scott King,
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Albie Sachs,
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and Lech Walesa

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Ellen Sirleaf
Ellen Sirleaf
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Ellen Sirleaf Interview (page: 6 / 8)

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  Ellen Sirleaf

How do you go about rebuilding an infrastructure that was so devastated?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: You make an assessment of where we are. That's what we've done. You set your infrastructure targets, and we started what we call our "150-Day Action Plan" that brought back lights into the capital city for the first time in 14 years, and brought some water into the homes for the first time. Now we've laid out a full action plan on our poverty reduction strategy, where we've identified how many roads we will build, and how many schools we're going to build or renovate, and how many clinics, and we've got them time-bound. That's what we work with. Also, our partners on this, and we've been getting good support from the United States, from the European Commission, from many of the bilaterals, the Scandinavian countries that have -- if there's any constraint, it's sometimes implementation is slower than we would want it, because we've got to follow all the process and procedures of all the many donors that support us. I always call it "the long road between commitment and cash." But we're traveling that road, and we're beginning to see the roads are being repaired right now. So many schools are being reopened, and clinics. We hope to expand electricity some more within the next few months, and more water. We're talking about rural electricity, so in another couple of years I think we will have restored many of the facilities that were destroyed during the war.

You made a commencement address recently at Dartmouth College here in the United States. What was your message to the graduating students?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh, that had to do with leadership. That's where I encourage and pointed to the example of one or two people that I considered high-profile examples of courage and leadership. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of them. Rosa Parks is another.

What are the most important qualities for leadership? What would you tell a young person who is interested in going into public service?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Example. First of all, you have to set the example. And that example has to show in integrity, courage, ability to make decisions, competence. And then, inspiration and motivation. You've got to be able to carry people with you, and to set your goals very clearly, and to have them agree with those and to motivate them to achieve the goals that have been set. Listening. Being able to respect other's views and take those into account. And sometimes, as leaders, we're also guilty with not giving due recognition. That motivates people by telling them when they've done a good job sometimes, and I'm guilty of that too. Sometimes we see the faults so often, and then not see the contribution.

Over the years, while you've continued to show such strong leadership, was there a moment when you really felt it was all over? Was there a time when you wouldn't be able to do what you wanted to do, or wouldn't even be able to survive?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I've never reached the point of hopelessness where I felt I wouldn't survive. I've reached many points of disappointments. After the 1997 elections, for example, after all the effort we made and the results that were announced. "It's an impossible task. We're dealing with a warlord who has immense power, who has the support." The first thing one gets is, "Forget it. Give it up. Go back into international professional life." It took a little bit of resolve and reflection to say, "You can't give up. You've got to stay the course and suffer the consequences, the indignities and the difficulties." But I think that was a low point, right after those elections when everything just seemed like an exercise in futility.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Where do you suppose your capacity for leadership comes from? Was it instilled in you by your parents?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I think it comes from childhood. It comes from my parents, from the experiences that they had. My father, in a way, was a leader, since he was one of the first native persons in our legislature.

What was his role?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: He was a lawyer, but he was also, like I said, the first one to represent the indigenous population in our legislature. That set him up as a leader, and so he moved around in that circle. My mother was a teacher, but that also enabled her to exhibit some leadership by bringing all the -- so many of the children in the neighborhood remember her and the role she played. She subsequently became a pastor, and that put her in a leadership position in the church. So I suppose it's that upbringing that maybe set me on that path.

Did you have siblings?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. Three siblings. One is with me here. A sister and two brothers. A brother died earlier.

I gather that education was very important in your family?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Very important, coming from the background they did.

As I said, they came from essentially indigenous families but were brought up by settler families. And the main reason for their own parents giving them up to other families was to ensure that they had an education, recognizing that in our environment in those days, without an education -- since you did not come from elitist background -- you wouldn't go very far. So in our family hard work and education were the two things that were stressed.

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This page last revised on Jun 19, 2012 16:47 EST
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