Keynote Speech by U.S. Charge ‘d’Affaires Sheila Paskman, Given at the African Youth Leadership Development Forum


When I thought about the theme of this event “Raising New Leadership for National Transformation,” I thought to myself, “I disagree with the thought behind this title.” I will tell you why. This title implies something that will happen in the future. It says to me, we will look at our youth with potential and train them and encourage them to be leaders in the future to help transform Liberia. I disagree because I think that those among you who have leadership potential can help transform your country right now. You do not need to wait for some distant future.

First, we need to talk about “what is a leader?” when we think about leaders most of us think about someone in an important job like being a member of the government of the legislature or president of a big company.

However, being a leader is not about holding a particular position or job. It is about your ability to inspire and influence people. It is about organizing to achieve their goals. It is about having a vision of the possible future that helps to motivate everyone around you.

I want you to notice something important about what I just said-‑‑‑it is not just about you it is about how you work with other people. A great leader does not achieve things by working alone. A great leader helps everyone around them achieve what is necessary to achieve to build a new future. I had the great privilege of working with U.S. General Colin Powell on several occasions. Not only was Colin Powell a great military leader, he was also a great government leader in his role as the U.S. Secretary of State. One of the things that struck me about Colin Powell was his humility and approachability. The first time I worked with General Powell took place when I arranged for a Chinese television station in Beijing to interview him. He talked about the hardships he had faced in his life and how he had to keep trying in order to achieve the high levels of leadership he had achieved. It was quite inspiring to hear him talk about his life and to witness his positive attitude.

About a year later, I had another occasion to work with General Powell on another television interview. When we met to discuss the interview, I introduced myself. He smiled and reminded me that he had met me before. I was amazed. He meets thousands of people and yet he remembered our brief meeting from a year earlier. I thought to myself, this is why he is such an inspiring leader. He understands that leadership does not happen in a vacuum. Leadership is about working with people and inspiring them. I had several more occasions to work with Colin Powell and always found him equally inspiring. To this day, he could ask me to do anything and I would gladly follow his leadership. I have to emphasize that I feel this way not because he is an important person but because he does important work and makes me feel like my own work is important.

As you heard, I am the number two person at the U.S. Embassy and am a senior U.S. diplomat. As I have progressed in my career with the U.S. diplomatic corps, I have often been confronted with issues surrounding leadership. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about people who are inspiring leaders like Colin Powell and bosses that are just bosses and not really leaders. I am sure we have all run into the people who, because of their position, tell us what to do. To my mind, these people are not leaders. They are just bosses— and not very good ones. So, what does it take to be a true leader and not just boss? I have already mentioned several things but let’s look at those things individually.

First and maybe most importantly, — a leader leads people. A leader does not work in isolation. You can lead people by bullying them into doing what you want but that will make you a poor leaders. A great leader gets his or her team to share the same vision of what can be accomplished and then gives the team guidance on how to get there.

A great leader is a good listener. As a leader, you are not the only person with good ideas. Your never know who on your team is going to have the great idea that will help everyone achieve their goals. And, even if the ideas you hear are not that great, listening to ideas is a good way of mentoring your team members and encouraging their creativity. Maybe the first idea you hear will not be great but if you encourage that person to come back with more ideas the 5th or the 10th idea may be just what you need to complete you plan successfully.

Humility and treating people with respect is important. It earns loyalty — and loyalty is something you must earn. It is not easily given. However, once you have earned it your team will be willing to go through the most difficult times with you because they believe that in the end you will succeed and you will let them share in your success.

Now back to what I said in the beginning, you should not wait to act until some future date when you may have that great job that you hope is in your future. Now is the time for you to reach out and start on the road to being a great leader. You can work with your colleagues and friends to raise political awareness among young people. You can take it into your own hands to organize your neighborhood to clean it up or to have a crime watch. You can support small businesses in your community to help them grow. All of these things will lead to a positive future for Liberia.

You can be a leader now and help your country now. Why wait for the future when the future is now?

Thank you.


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