The first time I became aware of her existence was through a podcast with a prominent American church leader. As Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talked about her journey to becoming the first democratically elected, female black President in the world, I thought, “why have I not heard about this woman before? Where have they been hiding her?” Was it my own ignorance or was she somehow irrelevant because she was a black, female leader of a small West African country with a population of less than 6 million?

Born 29th October 1938 to a Liberian father and a mother of mixed Kru- German ancestry, Ellen was educated in Liberia, studied at Madison Business College in Colorado, and completed her Masters Degree in Public Administration at Harvard University. This was an achievement for anyone whose parents were from poor families. After Harvard she returned to Liberia where she held a number of government positions, including Deputy Minister and Minster of Finance. She was also President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment. A coup d’état and execution of the then president led to her fleeing the country for the United States. Later she contested a senatorial seat, and subsequently, the 1997 presidential election, finishing in second place. Liberia was apparently not ready for a female leader.

Known internationally as Africa’s Iron Lady, Sirleaf Johnson amassed several accolades, including a number of ‘firsts’ that make for impressive reading. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the United States’ highest civilian award), the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur (France’s highest public distinction), and was named one of Forbes’s “100 Most Powerful Women in the World” (2012). In June 2016, President Sirleaf was elected the first female Chairperson of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), appointed co-chair of the United Nations Secretary General’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons and in 2017, was awarded the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. She also held the International Women’s Leadership Award (2008) and the International Woman of the Year award (2006).

Her achievements continued. An economist, during her two terms as president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf focused on rebuilding Liberia’s finances which were in dire straits following years of a civil war. She attracted over $16 billion in foreign direct investment and more than $5 million in private resources to rebuild schools, clinics and markets. She successfully negotiated $4.6 billion in external debt forgiveness, as well as persuading the UN to lift trade sanctions, allowing Liberia to once again trade with international markets. The national budget for Liberia increased from $80 million in 2006 to over $672 million in 2012, with an annual GDP growth rate of more than 7%.

It is interesting that women played a large part in ending the war that ravaged Liberia. They launched a mass peace movement in 2003, organising sex strikes until their men put down their arms. They forced a meeting with the then President, Charles Taylor, persuading him to attend peace talks in Ghana. Once there, a mass of women surrounded the room, threatening to take off their clothes until a peace deal was reached. Their courage and determination was unparalleled and it is believed that they helped get Mrs Sirleaf elected in 2005. In 2008, Abigail Disney produced a documentary film entitled Pray the Devil Back to Hell which tells this story.

During an interview, the former president was asked how she had managed to survive the times of challenge and turbulence, including her self-imposed exile. Her simple reply was profound: “suffering brings courage”. She spoke of growing up in a Christian home. Her mother who was a pastor and teacher, had brought them up to ‘withstand challenges’. An elderly man had prophesied over Ellen shortly after she was born, saying ‘this child will be great’, but nothing in her childhood suggested this greatness. Leaving behind a failed marriage of five years during which she suffered domestic abuse, and despite having four young children, she returned to the USA to complete her bachelor’s degree. This former president had learned how to be relentless and in her own words, how to ‘keep getting up’.

‘One thing you are holding onto is your faith in God’.
Ellen Sirleaf Johnson

During her tenure as President, her country was faced by one of the most deadly viruses known to man – Ebola. The WHO predicted millions of cases and thousands of deaths. She stayed on in the face of such calamity ‘to overcome fear, to give hope’. She believed in the power of womanhood, and that in times of crises women bring sensitivity, calm and moderation to situations, which is how they could reduce deaths from what was predicted to just over 4000. (Her understanding about women’s leadership of women was clearly evidenced during the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic where the countries led by women fared overwhelmingly better than those led by men). Ellen never felt that being a woman was a liability but as an asset to be used for the good of others.

The Bible has many great examples of relentless leaders in the pursuit of God or His purposes. While it isn’t clear how many years David spent on the run from Saul, there were various points at which he could have given up on ever becoming king, but he just kept getting up. Paul’s list of adversities (2 Corinthians 11:22-33) included five incidences of forty lashes minus one, left for dead on more than one occasion and without food or clothing on others. He’s another example of a leader who just kept getting up. Joseph spent more years in prison than he deserved for a crime he didn’t commit, but he just kept getting up.

Leadership has its share of knocks and challenges, and the only way to survive is to keep getting up. Certainly not in a ‘gritting your teeth in your own strength’ way, but as we are admonished in the final chapter of Ephesians – ‘be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might’ and again in Colossians, strengthened with all might according to His glorious power for all patience and longsuffering, with joy”.

Bottom line? Keep getting up.

Reflective Leadership Questions

(Can be done individually or in groups)

  1. Where in your leadership context are you tempted to give up now? What personal circumstances, past or present, threaten to disqualify you from your leadership calling?
  2. Looking back at your journey to where you are now, how did you overcome challenges that threatened to derail you from God’s plan and purpose? Who was instrumental in helping you maintain focus and not give up? What aspects of how you managed the situation then can you bring to bear on any current challenges.
  3. Who might you help in their own current challenges to ‘keep getting up’?