On May 15, my classmate Amandla Ooko-Ombaka and I moderated the opening panel for HKS Ideasphere with the former Mexican President Felipe Calderon (HKS Class 2000, HKS Fellow 2013) and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (HKS Class 1971) to discuss their paths of leadership that ultimately led them to the presidency in their respective countries.
While Amandla and I were getting warmed up in the green room with the two heads of state , Dean Ellwood, Dean Bohnet, the two presidents’ huge security detail, and our own American secret service, I was so surprised to witness how humble, funny, and emotionally accessible the two presidents were. When I tried to pour water for the people sitting around the table, President Calderon swiftly reached across the table, grabbed the glass water pitcher from me, and said, while shaking his head, “You shouldn’t have to do that. I’ll do that.” This small gesture was a shock to my familiarity with East Asian social norms rooted in hierarchy. Throughout the time I spent preparing for this panel with Amandla — with the deans of our school, and the presidents themselves — I was repeatedly surprised by how humble and grounded these high-profile leaders are.
When I asked President Johnson-Sirleaf from where she draws her strength, she answered her parents and a vision [I’m paraphrasing her eloquent words here]. I realized that this “Iron Lady of Africa,”–who has achieved so much for her country that rightly earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011–is, at the end of the day, a person. A daughter. A sister. A friend. A mentor. And mentee.
In addition to the extreme anxiety of speaking with heads of state (I was sweating bullets on stage!), my other poignant memory from this experience is that the more power some people have, the more humble they are.