Leading Rwanda: Having the courage to stand up and speak out

US civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. – second from right - was born 91 years ago last week and is seen here protesting in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Net photo.

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right” (US civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.)

“A warrior fights with courage, not with anger” (African proverb)

“If your dreams don’t scare you, you aren’t dreaming big enough” (Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf).

There is a famous story of a university student who was taking a final examination in Philosophy. He had to answer the question: “What is Courage?”

After a few minutes, he wrote down just two words on the front of the answer booklet before standing up and leaving the examination hall. The two words were: “This is”. He got a B+.

Leaders in Rwanda and around the world may have different kinds of examinations, tests and trials to face in their work lives but the same principles apply: having the courage to know yourself, be different, take risks, stand up, be creative and speak out.

Gloriose Musekeweya focuses on these principles as Election Zone Coordinator at the National Electoral Commission (NEC) of Rwanda, which not only conducts electoral activities but also engages in civic education on elections.

“It is very important for everyone to participate in elections to sustain democracy and promote good governance,” she says.

“We need both men and women working together”, she adds but her particular focus is to conduct credible and inclusive elections by increasing the number of women leaders in the districts of Rubavu and Ngororero where she works, especially at the cell and village level.

Even though Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament of any country in the world, “we need a big number of women in local leadership as well … there are many powerful and intelligent women but they have a different mentality and tend to participate less than men.”

To achieve credible and inclusive elections, the NEC has been collaborating with different stakeholders to help change this “culture” of low participation of women and they are now showing better results.

This success is due to increased civic education and the legal framework that requires at least 30% of positions to be filled by women. And there is another factor.

“Women have been left behind for so many years” she says. “Many are lacking in confidence and don’t trust themselves.” However, with good governance and support, more and more women are now feeling empowered and committing to stand for office.

This crucial issue of having the confidence – and not just the competence – to stand up and speak out is prevalent in the private sector as well, whether you are a designated leader or not.

This was the case for L., a marketing and communication professional at a leading financial services company, who preferred not to be identified. “My boss was a bully and she would constantly threaten to have me fired”.

L’s first move towards standing up and speaking out was realising that it wasn’t about her but about her boss, who also terrorized other people in the office.

Two of her colleagues encouraged her to say something to the boss and other stakeholders. “It took a lot of watching TED talks, talking to myself in the mirror and positive affirmations for me to do this but I am so glad that I did.”

In the end, the bullying boss quit and L was able to develop her informal leadership skills at this same company.

What can others do in such a difficult situation? Three things, says L:

1. Right Timing

Don’t rush. Take your time, Plan your strategy. Find an appropriate time and place for both of you to have the difficult conversation, preferably when the other person is in a good mood

2. Right People

Find people at work and outside who know you, understand you, support you and encourage you. They won’t let you talk yourself out of taking action and they will hold you accountable. Also try to identify and speak to other leaders and mentors, who will listen to you and guide you.

3. Right Words

Write down what you want to say. Play it out in your head. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Appeal to their better side. Practice with others and get their specific feedback and suggestions. Revise and refine.

It sounds simple and yet it is not so easy in practice.

But whether you are a philosophy student, election coordinator or a marketing professional or something completely different, you can hopefully still be inspired by the words of former South African president Nelson Mandela: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”


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