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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mao Zedong: Comparative Essay

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Leadership is a research area and a skill that is defined as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse, 2019, p.5). Anyone has the potential ability to lead and guide other individuals, teams, or organizations, and that ability is present in many different situations whether we know it or not. However, each person is different in his/her leadership skills and has distinctive qualities and characteristics as a leader. This brings to the world a set of unique views, with people that have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people have the natural ability to act as a leader, but others have to learn and train to develop the necessary abilities. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mao Zedong are both relatively recent important leaders from history which can be analyzed using leadership theories. While Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mao Zedong share similarities in their leadership, Sirleaf is an interactive leader as defined through the transformational leadership theory, and Mao is a revolutionary leader as revealed in the charismatic leadership theory.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Life

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in Monrovia and was able to incorporate perspectives from both, the Americo-Liberian culture from her mother’s side and the Indigenous-Liberian culture from her father. She says, “my feet are in two worlds” (Scully, 2016, p.27), revealing how she took advantage of her dual heritage and expressed it effectively through her leadership. After completing her education and working in the United States, she returned to Liberia to serve as Deputy Minister of Finance. In 1985, she returned to Monrovia and was involved in the general election of Liberia. However, Sirleaf spent one year in prison for giving a speech in which she insulted the members of Samuel Doe’s regime and had her life threatened by former President Charles Taylor. She constantly fought for her country and was a presidential candidate several times, to eventually become the first female president of Liberia in November of 2005. During her presidency, she led Liberia through reconciliation and recovery after the country's civil war, as well as the Ebola crisis. She was also a key participant and shaper of women’s rights and role in peacemaking; she broke many glass ceilings by being the first female president of Liberia and the first woman to lead the United Nations regional Bureau of Africa (Scully, 2016). Overall, it is evident that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has a big impact in her country and has experiences that reveal her leadership style and traits.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Leadership

Reflecting on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s life experiences, she comes up as a transformational and as an interactive leader. She exhibits these two leadership styles based on the six traits defined by Kirkpatrick: drive, leadership motivation, honesty, self-confidence, cognitive ability, and knowledge of the business.

A transformational leader, according to Burns, is a leader who transforms and changes society positively, prioritizes the needs of the followers, and demonstrates the 4 I’s, which are: inspirational motivation, idealized influence, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. Sirleaf had a passion for what she was doing which fueled her self-confidence and drive to accomplish her goals. For example, she had the desire to be an advocate for women’s rights and wanted them to have a place in society. By breaking glass ceilings, she was able to inspire young girls to do the same and believe that they could attain a managerial position in the workforce. Thus, we learn the importance of being driven towards a purpose. Sirleaf is also very change-oriented. She appointed women in government (previously a male-dominated society), adapted economic policies, and worked towards changing the roles of violence in Liberia. She transformed society, not only for women and young children but also the economic and political policies.

Interactive leadership was also a big part of Sirleaf’s leadership style, showing some typical characteristics such as being open, having positive relationships, support, and empowerment. Sirleaf was able to encourage participation from her followers because she had confidence in them that they too were working to better Liberia. Apart from working with her followers and inspiring them to do good, she also interacted with different nations to bring in new concepts/ideas into Liberia. This also reveals her human skills because she was able to communicate effectively across cultures in multiple situations.

Mao Zedong’s Life

Mao Zedong was born in 1893 in China and grew up in an environment where education was valued. However, at the age of 13, his father considered that his education was completed and he was sent to work full-time in his family’s farm. Eventually, he rebelled against his parents and left his family to continue his studies. During this, he came in contact with new western ideas, socialism, and revolutionary thought. Eventually, Mao Zedong became known as a principal Marxist theorist and soldier who led his country’s communist revolution. He was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death and chairman of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until his death as well. After the failure of the Great Leap Forward, which was an attempt to increase the Chinese economy but resulted in the death of millions from famine, he launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The Cultural Revolution changed the old capitalistic and traditional ways of Chinese life. It resulted in the forced removal of many people who opposed his policies, leading to deep a disorder and profound cultural and social changes in China (Spence, 2006). Mao Zedong is a controversial leader where many people have different views on him.

Mao Zedong’s Leadership

Based on Mao Zedong’s life, it is evident that he is a charismatic leader. A charismatic leader is a person who motivates their followers to effectively get things done; the followers are very dependent on their leader. Weber describes charismatic leaders as to “possess superhuman qualities or powers of divine origin that set them apart from ordinary mortals” (Wren, 1995, pp.185-186). To be this type of leader, it is very important that the person has good communication skills because they have to build a relationship with their followers that will allow them to work together.

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In Mao Zedong’s case, this theory was not always used in a positive way. He seemed to have good intentions but did not always result in the way he wanted and failed as a leader in the sense that the results were detrimental to his followers. For example, the Great Leap Forward was a complete failure because it led to social and economic disaster, however, his intention was to transform the country from an agrarian economy to a socialist society. It is evident that Mao took charge in his position and wanted to enact change. This example of Mao Zedong reveals that a charismatic leader does not always have to be shown in a positive way. He failed in many ways but is still considered as a charismatic leader because he was revolutionary.

As a leader, Mao Zedong was able to adapt to different situations and was able to work with different followers. For example, during the Long March, he suffered with his men and identified with the peasants. He also wanted to better the lives of the oppressed and wanted to reform China in a political, economic, and social way. He wasn’t afraid to express his opinions and was determined to fight for change.


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mao Zedong are two contrasting leaders that strived to better their respective countries, with very different outcomes. Sirleaf used her skills to successfully transform her country to something better despite uncontrollable events. As a transformational leader, she mainly used her motivation and drive to enact change. She had a clear vision and laid the foundation on which Liberia can now build on. In contrast, Mao Zedong changed his country in a radical way, but the immense human costs associated with those changes, question his leadership skills because he did not have the ability to foresee the cost of his approach. Just like Sirleaf, he did have a vision, but the implementation wasn’t really smooth when looking at the results of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Although Mao Zedong can be considered the father of modern China, the success of those initiatives are still debated in China. This is the reason why he is a very controversial leader; he had good intentions and wanted to better his country but wasn’t able to fully succeed.

Another difference between the two leaders is that Sirleaf was leading all the people of Liberia, while Mao was more focused on the poor and the women. Sirleaf was able to inspire all people of Liberia and make positive changes. Her followers can be seen as pragmatic survivors because they were active, critical thinkers, and effective. However, because Zedong only focused on a group, he only received support from them and not necessarily from others such as the middle/upper classes and the intellectuals. For example, he only opened schools in the rural areas to help the poor but closed city schools which would resulted in many uneducated children or sent millions to re-education camps that effectively resulted in misuse of human resources. He pushed for change but regardless of the consequences. The followers that he did have can be seen as diehard followers because they felt strongly about him and were actively engaged with him as his policies, blind to the quality or consequences of the results.

Lastly, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mao Zedong both had the position to lead their country, however, they both used their power in two different ways. Sirleaf had socialized power because she was empowering and self-sacrificing. For example, she was willing to put herself in danger to benefit her country. Sirleaf spoke out against Doe’s regime, even though she knew her consequences; she focused on fairness, freedom, and unity. In contrast, Mao seemed more as having personalized power because he was selfish and lacked self-control. He wasn’t able to work with his whole country and was disorganized in his actions.

Despite these differences, they both were able to enact some type of change in their country and inspire their particular followers.

Implication & Conclusion

Both, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mao Zedong had unique leadership experiences that reveal leadership lessons which are crucial and should be taken into account when leading. Sirleaf, she has shown the importance of confidence, passion for your goals, and sharing a common vision with your followers. She has also been a great example of working within a context with a disadvantage where other leaders can learn from her failures. On the other hand, Mao teaches us the importance of resilience and dedication. During his life as a leader, he was able to represent this through his commitment to his goals, for example, the Cultural Revolution that he continued to fight for his beliefs and vision. It is important for leaders in today’s world to understand these lessons because it will benefit them and their followers.

Leadership theories that have been proposed in the recent years are beneficial to whoever studies leadership, however, there are flaws that need to be considered. The biggest flaw in the current leadership theories is that they are more focused on western ideals and their cultures. This is beneficial for leaders in western countries; however, it is hard for non-western leaders to properly fit into western theories. The study of global leadership would benefit from the study of international leaders, for example, Sirleaf and Mao, because they don’t fully fit into the aspects from the theories that are studied today. Another flaw is that leadership theory are leader-centered, therefore they tend to ignore the followers or the environment in which leadership is exercised. Leadership should include three components: leader, follower, and situation. Looking at the current models, they are mostly focused on the leader and tend to forget about the other two equally important components to leadership.

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