Elizabeth Bintliff is the President and CEO of JA Africa, a youth-focused organization. She is a development professional with 17 years of experience. Formerly the vice-president of Africa Programmes at Heifer International, Elizabeth managed a multi-million dollar portfolio in 12 sub-Saharan African countries. Born and raised in Cameroon, Bintliff earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International Affairs from Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and has a Masters in African Studies from Yale University. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Zanzibar. Elizabeth was recently awarded the Madhuri and Jagdish N. Sheth Distinguished Alumni Award for Exceptional Humanitarian and Service Achievement by her alma mater, Kennesaw State University.
Congratulations on being selected as a 2017 Desmond Tutu leadership fellow. When you cast your mind back, when did you realize you were a leader or becoming one and what did you do to ensure you’re an effective one?
Thank you. I didn’t set out to become a leader. Other people saw leadership qualities in me long before I saw them myself. When I came to that realization, I embraced it myself and I have worked really hard at becoming an effective one. I think every leader owes it to her people to grow as a person; to be intentional about their own development. For me, what is central in leadership is being attentive to the people you are leading and that is the cornerstone of my leadership style. I lead with a great deal of empathy and compassion and I make sure the people around me are channeling their energy in the right ways and that they have balance in their lives. People are most effective when they feel valued for what they bring and have a sense of balance between their professional commitments and who they are outside of their profession.
You work with young people across Africa. What do you believe to be critical to the prospects of young people that society needs to pay more attention to?
Africa is a young continent. Up to 60% of Africa’s population is aged under 24. For there to be continuous development on the continent in the years to come, the youth need to be well equipped to achieve individual and collective success. Intentionally guiding young people to the right path is key to their ability to own their economic success. We often talk about society as if it is this big thing that exists outside of ourselves but society is us. There are very practical ways that we as adults can make that investment. Seasoned professionals can be intentional about providing this service by looking around them, identifying those who need help and coaching them through their learning. Identifying and engaging a young person can go a long way to helping them integrate into the workplace, to learn or enhance their skills and guide them through the uncertainties of life.
What do you think is the biggest challenge adolescents are facing and how can parents and other adults in their life help?
I think it is how to manage the expectations of their parents. Young people live in a vastly different world than their parents did and they see the future changing before them. I often say the difference between the world of youth and that of their parents is the difference between rotary phone and cell phones. Their parents want them to have degrees and certificates on the wall when what they need are skills. Parents want them to go to jobs every morning and they live in a world of virtual workplaces. Parents want doctors and lawyers and kids speak the language of entrepreneurship. So it’s night and day.
In our African culture, specifically, it is near impossible for young people to challenge their parents so one of the tools kids need is the language to have these conversations with their parents and to help them understand a new world and new reality so that they can help children prepare for that world. One of the greatest gifts we as parents can give to our children is to validate their dreams and aspirations, no matter how crazy or dangerous they seem, no matter how far they deviate from the picture we have in our minds of what their lives should be and what they should do with their futures.
You have special leadership camps for 14-19 year old girls during which they develop life plans. In your experience, what are some strategic leadership skills that can and need to be taught early to girls so that they have a strong start?
I think girls need to be taught that they have value beyond just the messaging that women and girls have been given by society for centuries. Girls learn from a very young age to play second fiddle to boys. They carry that mindset into womanhood. Intentionally and unintentionally society tells them that they are or should be less than: less smart, less capable, less ambitious, etc. In truth the data tells us that girls perform academically at par with boys and sometimes outperform them. I think girls need to be taught how to be and to project confidence, how to value themselves, how to believe in themselves, how to trust their instincts, how to speak up. I am especially passionate about encouraging young girls to take up leadership because the world needs female voices to balance out the inequilibrium that I think impedes societal progress.
In your view, what are the most lacking traits in leaders today and what is the most important characteristic that every leader should possess?
I think fundamentally so much leadership around the world lacks empathy and compassion. I am a very optimistic person and I do think the general population is becoming more empathetic and more compassionate, but for some reason that is not reflected in leadership at many levels. In order to make decisions that move our world forward, leaders desperately need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of others. I am optimistic about this generation coming up because there is no shortage of leadership programmes that they have access to and the conversations about leadership – what it means and what it takes – are starting at a young age. Educating previous generations focused so much on technical skills. Hopefully the future will be full of leaders who care, who are ethical; who have high levels of integrity.
Of all the many challenges women face, which would you make disappear if you had a magic wand and why?
If I had a wand I would make self-doubt go away. Impostor syndrome is rampant among women. I’ve had my struggles with it. I think it goes to my earlier point about girls. I try to remember now, and other women should, that if you are at the table you have every right to be there. Self-doubt is a corrosive foundation; you can’t build anything on it. Sure, there are other challenges that women face, but if we have confidence in ourselves we can overcome so many of them. A determined woman is a powerful force!
Many women want to become CEO/senior leader. What would you say is one key ‘no no’ and one ‘must do’ for anyone climbing the steep ladder to the top?
I think one ‘must do’ is to be clear about whether you want the role and what you want to accomplish. Being in executive leadership is very demanding and taxing. You have responsibility and accountability to many people. You have to be very committed to the role and to the people you lead. You have to be committed to their growth as well as their own. Growth can be a painful process, especially when it happens in the public eye. A big ‘no no’ is compromising who you are for any reason. You have to be true to yourself and do things your own way. By all means don’t sacrifice your life pursuing a career; maintain your friendships, stay connected with your family, invest energy in your well-being and in the people and things that buoy you.
If you could ask one question to a woman leader you really admire, what would that question be and why would that question be important for you?
I would ask Michelle Obama, whom I am almost worshipful of, how one sustains gracefulness in such a challenging and often pressure-filled world. Being a female leader can be challenging. There are times when you want to lose your sense of calm. I admire women who have the ability to be graceful at all times through innumerable challenges. Michelle Obama’s grace on the world stage was remarkable and unparalleled. I aspire to be like that.
We reflect the company we keep. How do you determine who is good for you to bring into your network and what’s your process for growing through the network?
I am a highly intuitive person. I read people’s spirits like birds predict the weather. The people I know and the company I keep are people whose spirit appeals to mine. I call them my ‘tribe.’ I think ultimately it’s about being in a relationship of trust. My ‘tribe,’ whether my professional network or my network of friends; is a small, intimate, very carefully built fort of people who have my back, who lift me up, who care, who counsel, who speak to me honestly, who give me feedback, who feed my soul in a reciprocal relationship. To be clear, these are not necessarily people who are like me, they just share and reflect similar values. I don’t allow people access to my spirit if they don’t have ‘good juju.’ They may have the world to offer but I’ve learned that all that is not worth it. I think there is an element of self-preservation in it. This is also something I strive to teach to our young people: peace of mind, a clear conscience, service to others and happiness cannot be substituted for anything.
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