Mobilizing in millions – A Strategic Leader’s Qualities

“I believe that a key to leadership, particularly on our continent today, is having a clear, persuasive and achievable vision.” ~ Akere T. Muna

Last week I had the great pleasure of moderating a lecture discussion at the 6th Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa, hosted in Bahir Dar. The lecture entitled, “Leadership in Africa: Reflections on the Legacy of the Late Dr. Wangari Maathai, was part of the annual Meles Zenawi Lecture Series at the Tana Forum, and this year delivered by Barrister Akere T. Muna, Chairperson of the International Anti-Corruption conference and Sanctions Commissioner of the African Development Bank Group.

I was particularly delighted to moderate this dialogue for two reasons: firstly, Dr. Wangari Maathai was the first female leader that the Tana Forum was paying homage to since the launch of the lecture series in 2014. Secondly, the life,work and leadership of Dr. Maathai has often fascinated me. Delivering his lecture on Dr. Maathai’s legacy, Barrister Muna rightly noted that she was a woman of many firsts – the first female to earn a doctorate degree in East and Central Africa; the first female to ever Chair the Department of Veterinary Medicine and become an associate professor at the University of Nairobi; and the first female to ever receive a Nobel prize.

However, it’s not her accolades that have often intrigued me. Rather, Dr. Maathai’s relentless pursuit of a vision that sprouted in her early twenties and which she spearheaded to mature into a grassroots movement mobilizing millions of people, especially women in environmental conservation, is curiosity inspiring. The seeds she planted in the Green Belt Movement, creating and raising environmental consciousness through tree planting, have now bloomed into the space of struggling for democracy, community empowerment and conflict resolution. All these developments, the hallmark of a transformational leader, thinking and planning strategically.

The Green Belt Movement is believed to have planted more than 50million trees and engaged over 30,000 women in conservation work by providing them with the skills to preserve their land and resources. Execution of her vision was exemplary and strategic in advocating for the nexus between the environment and women’s wellbeing. Suffering state repression, arrests, and beatings, Dr. Maathai valiantly fought back to realize her vision. In his lecture, Barrister Muna identified the mark of her legacy to be: commitment to a clear lifelong vision; perseverance in the face of resistance; inspiring followership and trust through role modelling and being accessible.  

Schoemaker, Krupp and Howland, in an article entitled “Strategic Leadership: The Essential Skills” authored for the Harvard Business Review, identify six essential skills for a strategic leader: i) anticipate ii) challenge iii) interpret iv) decide v) align vi) learn. In exercising, some of these essential skills of strategic leadership, I think what made Dr. Maathai successful in her movement building included anticipating the needs of those she served by immersing herself with them. Secondly, she challenged the status quo in the relationship between modernity and harmony with the environment by looking at the root causes rather than the symptoms of the problem. When the former President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi introduced a $200 million construction project to build malls and office buildings in a section of Uhuru Park, Dr. Maathai mobilized opposition against this action, warranting her the title “a wayward woman” by the President. Eventually, the plan was abandoned and the park left to be a place of respite for urbanites in Nairobi. Thirdly, to grow such a movement, she had to align all the disparate views and agendas of various stakeholders by primarily focusing on the women who would be most affected by environmental degradation and empowering them to be stewards of the environment, while earning a living. These examples are just to demonstrate the depth and breadth of her commitment to a clear vision which she managed to communicate with passion and purpose for a cause that became larger than life, and which she delivered strategically. Indeed, the cause was larger than her life – her work gaining more attention and respect after her passing.

What do you think are the traits of a strategic leader? What essential skills are required to execute a mission strategically? To grow your business/organization/impact? These are some of the questions AWiB aims to explore in the 6th edition of its annual May Forum – “Strategic Leadership: Getting Where You Want to Be.” Make sure to join in the conversation.

In the meantime, I sign-off with a captivating quote from Dr. Maathai which embodies agency and leadership:

I don\’t really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me.


Billene Seyoum is the Managing Director of Earuyan Solutions (www.earuyan.com) and also blogs at www.africanfeminism.com.