Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word

Published 9 years ago

No one said it would be easy!

As women of Africa we have had epic battles to fight, from freeing ourselves from the shackles of colonized and patriarchal mindsets, to being pigeon-holed by our multi-textured identities shaped by race, gender, class and cultures. But we have started to change that: initially we did this hesitantly, often unsure about our own strength, both physical and emotional, as well as our worth – and, more often than not, cowed by the often unquestioned power-based status quo in our societies and institutions, and the barriers that kept us out.

But now we are braver, wiser and more reliant on our own instincts and leadership traits; our emotional and spiritual intelligence; our formal and informal knowledge; our experiences and our relationships, and so we have begun to carve out the future we want for ourselves in bigger, bolder and more audacious steps. In general, African women have started to own their voices and make their mark in domains that were previously male-dominated. Why?


I like to posit that one of the primary reasons for this phenomenon is that women are no longer afraid of owning their ambition; we have finally learned that ambition is not a dirty word. Previously we would shy away from asking, negotiating, speaking up, recognizing our worth and claiming the recognition we so rightly deserve. From war-torn countries to boardrooms to our homes, we are no longer wearing the victim cap but have replaced it with our open ambition – not driven primarily for self-centered, egocentric reasons but because we are deeply passionate about creating better adjusted societies. Most of us are, after all, mothers or mothers in the making, and so instinctively nurturing – and which mother in which country does not want a better life for her child?

From women who are playing significant peace-keeping roles in their countries, to the survivalist female entrepreneurs operating as the third economy in hugely disparate nations, to women who have paved the way for more women in the boardrooms of corporate enterprises and government structures – all have claimed the right to their goals and aspirations.

Huge sacrifices have been made by women who came before us, particularly those who fearlessly stood up to oppressive regimes and allowed us to take our seats around the tables of power. You and I are without a doubt still making sacrifices and may obtain many scars for openly demonstrating such a determined sense of civil or commercial purpose. But instead of hiding our scars let’s wear them as badges of honor.


I have quite a few scars myself, but through my experiences I have learned that what does not kill or damage me is character-building and has given me  an inner strength and resilience I did not know I possessed. I was talking to a South African male leader recently and he said something very interesting; the gist of it went like this: “I was never an insider and being the outsider from a young age made me fight for it, and work harder and smarter – and made me infinitely more hungry.”

I think this can be argued as a case for women who have never been the insiders in a male-dominated society and business environment. In addition to being the outsiders we also possess traits that men simply don’t have. According to an extensive study conducted in 2013 by John Gerzema, named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Behaviour 2014 by Trust Across America, and Michael D’Antonio, women are intuitively more expressive in their leadership style, they use flexibility as a way of getting things done, and they see winning as a group construct. These are primarily female leadership traits, the study concluded, and are what we want in our leaders today – that is, leaders who have the capacity to relate to ordinary people and their points of view.

Simply put, we are the leaders we have been waiting for. Our nation, our society and our corporate enterprises need leaders like us; and the young women and men in our societies need role models like us. Gerzema and D’Antonio articulate it beautifully in the title of their 2013 New York Times bestseller, The Athena Doctrine: how women (and the men who think like them) will rule the future.

That future is now. Women need to be proud of their ambition and, in realizing it, must be prepared to stave off whatever slings and arrows the insiders may throw at us.



The writer is the Executive Director of the Centre for Leadership and Dialogue at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg,

South Africa.