‘I Want to Remain an Iron Lady’

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President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has said that she wants to remain the “Iron Lady”.

Although people may call her by other names such as “Ma Ellen" or "Uncompromising Woman”, the President said, it is the “Iron Lady” title that she cherishes most because it truly represents her.

President Sirleaf began to be known as an Iron Lady in the 1960s, 70s and 80s due to her uncompromising stance against governments as she advocated for the rights of the masses, especially women and the underprivileged.

The Liberian leader has since received a barrage of criticism since her ascendancy to the presidency, with indications that the 'Iron Lady' title has now lost its true meaning. Those critics are saying that the President no longer does what she is noted for doing. However, those in her defense say it is because of her advanced age. She is 75.

Speaking at Harvard University in the United States over the weekend, President Sirleaf indicated that although Iron signifies strength and courage, it is not always a strength that is exemplified by force. "Sometimes the greatest strength is what I have to go through: tolerance in the midst of complexities; tolerance in the midst of dissent; being able to take the hard knocks as a leader and not pursue retribution, but to remain focused on the course that you want to achieve; and despite all the attempts and all the diversions, that you can chart that course and you can remain focused toward the goal", President Sirleaf explained.

According to a dispatch from Cambridge, President Sirleaf was addressing students of Harvard Kennedy School’s Mid-Career Master in Public Administration Edward S. Mason Program. The President, herself a distinguished alumna Mason Fellow (MC/MPA 1971), was sharing with current students her experiences as a Fellow.

Associate Director of MPA Programs and Director of the Edward S. Mason Program, Suzanne Shende, had earlier welcomed the guests and introduced President Sirleaf, citing her many accolades, distinctions and accomplishments, as well as her challenges and struggles.

She told the students that, when they feel challenged, discouraged or even imperiled because of life and death issues, they should “remember the example of a woman who’s been called Mama Ellen, the Iron Lady, an Uncompromising Woman, and whom “we also welcome and call a Mason Fellow.”

In response the President said “She [Director Shende] characterized me in three ways: Mama Ellen, Iron Lady, and an Uncompromising Woman. If somebody were to ask me today, 'Which of those three do you think you truly represent?', I think at the end of the day I would say I would want to remain an Iron Lady.”

The President requested an interactive session with the fellows so that she could listen to their wise advice and rich experiences she could take back that could make her a better leader. She welcomed their questions and their criticisms.

This was whole-heartedly welcomed by the students, who began asking probing questions such as how much she relies on the advice of others versus her own counsel; what is it that the people are missing from what leaders are doing, given that there are always complaints that they are doing nothing; what was her key take-away from the Mason Program and how has that helped her as President; how she chooses the people she trusts and how she handles betrayal; her views on the results of the elections in India where the ruling party was soundly defeated; and more.

To the question about what she learned from the Mason Fellowship Program, President Sirleaf responded: “To set a goal and stick with it, and use everything you have toward achieving that goal. That’s why I ran three times; it was only the third time that I won. It’s easy to get discouraged, but you must set that goal and stick with it. I think that’s what I learned: staying power."

At the end of the program, the Fellows presented President Sirleaf with a framed print from Harvard, which they had all signed. 

Two Liberians are among Harvard's current Mason Fellows: Mrs. Elva Richardson, former Deputy Minister for Administration, Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs; and Mrs. Decontee King-Sackie, newly appointed Deputy Commissioner General for Technical Affairs/Operation of the Liberia Revenue Authority. They formed part of the President’s delegation at the various events.

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