Leaders are humans, and as such, anyone who classifies themselves as a human can be a leader. There is an ignorant thought out there that somehow a manager must be a man. In my studies of leadership theories, leadership psychology, and effective leaders (past and present), I haven’t come across a single attribute that contributes to how amazing a leader is based on their gender identity.

In this series, I focus on women who have done amazing things in their communities and for their followers. They may not otherwise be classified as a leader, but for the length of this article, that is precisely what they are.

So, what makes a leader? What qualifies these particular people? Three factors went into it. First, their display of emotional intelligence. The combination of the relationships we have with ourselves and with others falls on a spectrum from healthy to unhealthy. Even if there are unhealthy parts, a leader works to improve at every opportunity. Second, the impact on a specific community. A leader does not typically start off as president of this or CEO of that; they start by leading within a corner of the world that might otherwise be ignored. Lastly, perseverance in the face of adversity. When facing an obstacle, we can throw in the towel or keep moving. A leader trusts their vision and continues to pursue it, regardless of how many times they are knocked down.


Who She Is

Wangari Maathai, born in 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya, started the Green Belt Movement, an organization dedicated to improving the environment through the planting of trees specifically through the efforts of women. Maathai and her political views faced fierce criticism from Kenyan government officials for her role in pushing for women’s rights. Focused on empowering women, the Movement encouraged them to become more involved in their community by registering to vote and pushing for political reform.

In 1971, Wangari Maathai became the first woman East African woman to get a Ph.D. She went on to win to Nobel Prize in 2004, the first African woman to do so, for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Maathai has won countless awards and served on the boards of several global organizations for women’s rights and environmental protections. This impressive leader even has a road named after her in Kenya. She passed away in 2011 from cancer, but without a doubt, achieved remarkable successes in her life and left a significant impact on our planet in more than one way.

Why She’s Important

Maathai’s actions inspired countless women across Africa to see a brighter future for themselves. It was empathy at the heart of her quest to restore the rural communities of Kenya. Being a Kenyan woman herself, she was familiar with the difficult responsibilities that the changing environment was causing for other women in her country. Maathai sought out the cause of the problem through a unique perspective – the environment. Maathai reframed the problem she saw, connecting with her fellow Kenyan women in a way that would solve the problem. The effects of her solution, as we know them today, did not stop with the environment.

Her story shows the significance and importance in leading through others. Giving women a more productive way to earn money, take care of their families, and help their community contributed to her ability to understand them. In the face of a male-dominated government and business sector that sought to expand cash crops and erect new buildings, all the while ignoring the environmental consequences, Maathai used her knowledge and experience to deepen her understanding of how others were feeling emotionally.

In taking on such a powerful force in Kenyan politics, Maathai was often called “crazy” by her critics. Furthermore, her position at the head of the Green Belt Movement got her arrested and beaten at times for posing a threat to the status quo of power. Without a firm grasp on relationships, Maathai would not have been able to make the connections she needed to persuade others to join her cause.

To be the leader of change, we need the requisite social skill to manage relationships with others and build relationships. Creating these relationships takes a commitment, however, that must outlast the time it takes to enroll people in a movement, idea, or project. Perseverance, thus, afforded Wangari Maathai the fortitude to see past the hatred, stubbornness, and brutality of others to win a seat in Parliament of Kenya.


Wangari Maathai believed in doing the best you could and not simply being a bystander while things fall apart. She used a fable of a hummingbird to express this idea, and did it so eloquently and effectively, it’s best told in her own words.



Schatz, Kate, and Miriam Klein Stahl. Rad women worldwide artists and athletes, pirates and punks, and other revolutionaries who shaped history. Ten Speed Press, 2016. pp. 27-28

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