H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's rise to power in Liberia as the first democratically elected woman president in Africa stands as one of the most definitive events of 21st century politics. Not only does her presidency firmly establish the integral importance of women leaders on the world stage, but her unique positioning as a woman with both African and Western roots -- genealogically, geographically, and intellectually -- signals a new kind of 21st century leadership consciousness of which we can suddenly see reflections everywhere. This new memoir traces her rise to power and the development of her distinctive leadership style, reveals her innovative philosophies of governance, and offers her timely reflections on current world affairs and pressing global concerns.
Those who found the Liberian civil conflict from 1989-2003 confusing and confounding will also find that this book provides illuminating insights about what happened and why. More importantly, President Sirleaf offers guidance through example and commentary about how to move beyond political and social conflict to peace, reconciliation, development, and, ultimately, prosperity. President Sirleaf's gift is the ability to look at the big picture and hone in on how people with fundamental disagreements and historical animosities can be harmonized and coordinated into a thriving open society that cultivates dissent under the banner of democratic process. The words "visionary pragmatism" (see Stanlie M. James and Abena P.A. Busia's academic book, Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women) come to mind.
Despite the challenges that President Sirleaf, and indeed Liberia, still face, we observe in this book a vision, a plan, sound strategy, and dogged determination in action. What President Sirleaf evidences in her story is how realpolitik and peacemaking can and, arguably, must be reconciled and integrated for effective 21st century leadership. While certain aspects of this book are clearly addressed to other world leaders, whether political or economic, and other aspects are clearly addressed to the Liberian citizenry, the generality of this text is addressed to everyday people worldwide who are genuinely concerned about social change and peace and are looking for both inspiration and real world example. Additionally, in my view, this book is well situated to help rehabilitate the relationship between the US and Liberia in ways that will ultimately set a new model for altering North/South and donor nation/developing nation relations more generally.
My only criticism of this book - which is really just a jumping off point for discussion - is President Sirleaf's treatment of the ongoing debate about African values (collectivism) vs. Western values (individualism). While her discussion is illuminating and nuanced, my sense is that this is no longer an either/or question but rather one which must be approached with an eye towards unapologetic integration of these two value sets. However, she more than makes up for this limitation in her cogent advocacy of gender development and gender mainstreaming as a feature of the way forward, not just in Liberia but worldwide.
No leader is perfect, but some leaders really change the quality of life on Earth. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia is one such individual and we have the good fortune to read all about it in This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President. I recommend this book highly, and, if you are similarly concerned with women, politics, and peace, offer the following suggestions for further reading: Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai, Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination by Pregs Govender, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza, Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War by Sister Chan Khong, and It's Always Possible: One Woman's Transformation of India's Prison System by Kiran Bedi.