Trailblazers have a pace and scale to their career trajectory that is sometimes intimidating yet possible. We welcome Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Director General of the World Trade Organization and the first woman and African to hold the position in the 75-year history of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the WTO. In this inspiring conversation, Dr. Ngozi shares her remarkable journey as a trailblazing economist, her experiences as Nigeria’s first female former finance minister (she served two terms), and her time at the World Bank. Facing life-threatening risks, she shares her pivotal role in reforming and transforming the Nigerian economy and securing around $30 billion in Paris Club debt relief for Nigeria. Tune in to gain valuable wisdom from this truly influential ‘world leader’ We learn what it takes, her thoughts on the future of leadership, Nelson Mandela’s relevance today, and why courage is critical. A remarkable woman of fortified courage, perseverance, and visionary leadership, as we journey across time and Dr. Ngozi’s childhood of rural village modesty and adulthood of luxury and life-threatening hardship. Don’t miss this riveting episode!
Listen to the podcast here.
“A Global Trailblazer” with the World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Dr. Ngozi in Switzerland
A Mixed Childhood in Rural Village Modesty, Luxury, and Life-threatening Hardship
In this episode, our thoughtful bold leader joins us from the headquarters of the World Trade Organization in the beautiful lake city of Geneva, surrounded by the magnificent Swiss Alps in Switzerland. She is the Director General of the World Trade Organization, the first African and the first woman to hold this position.
Previously, she spent 25 years at the World Bank and rose to the second most senior position as Managing Director of Operations, responsible for an $81 billion operational portfolio. She is a development economist with over 40 years of trailblazing track record. She is Nigeria’s first woman and former Finance Minister, Africa’s largest economy.
She served for two terms as Finance Minister and briefly served as Nigeria’s first female Minister of Foreign Affairs. She serves on multiple boards and is the Global Chair of the Vaccine Alliance, GAVI Board, and the Co-Chair of the Global Commission of the Economy and Climate. She is the author of multiple books and articles. She has received numerous accolades and honors, including twenty honorary doctorates from top universities worldwide.
Times Magazine has named her as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World. In 2021, she appeared on their front cover. The Financial Times has named her as one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women in the World. Forbes Magazine has named her six times as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in the World. In 2020, she was Forbes Africa’s Person of the Year. Fortune Magazine has named her one of the Top 50 Global Leaders in the World, and Foreign Policy has named her one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers Worldwide.
Stay tuned as she shares with us how you can accomplish so much within such a short time span. The future of leadership, why courage is critical, how Mandela touched her heart, and why his leadership is always relevant in the world now. We warmly welcome the humble, smart, and courageous Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director General of the World Trade Organization. Welcome to the show.
Dr. Ngozi, it’s such a joy and an honor to have you with us. Thank you so much.
Not at all. Thank you.
You have had a remarkable career. I marvel at how much you have packed into your young life. I thought a great starting point would be to ask you, “How have you been able to navigate so many multiple challenges and achieved so much in your personal and professional life? You’re a mother of four. You are married to a wonderful neurosurgeon. You’ve had such incredible positions spanning across the globe. Can you share with us how you focused on this and accomplished it all?
Thank you so much for the question. The secret is that you wake up feeling you haven’t accomplished it all, if that helps. Maybe that’s what keeps the drive. Seriously, it’s been a combination of quite a bit of hard work all along the career. On the professional side, first, let me say that it starts with trying to work in a place where I thought I would enjoy the content of what I was doing and I would also learn a lot.
Having been trained as an economist and interested in development issues, I decided earlier that working on development makes me tick. That directed where I looked for work as I left university. I also decided, “I’ll do this, but my ultimate goal would be to go back to my country and try to work there and give back.” That had always been at the back of my mind, and I thought I’d ultimately end up in academia.
However, when I then applied to the World Bank after I got my Ph.D. and got admitted to the Young Professionals Program, I fell in love with the work. I worked hard. It enabled me to work in different regions of the world. I was trying to do development work in agriculture, urban issues, and macroeconomic issues. There was such a range and scope on all aspects of development. A scope to move from Africa to East Asia to South Asia to Europe and all around the world. That versatility helped me. I made sure I moved in my career from one region to the other, from one type of assignment whilst acquiring some expertise along the way, especially on debt and debt management issues.
In short, what I say to people is I kept to assignments that I enjoyed even when they may not necessarily have led to the next promotion. I wasn’t going into assignments saying, “Let me do this so I’ll get the next promotion.” It was, “Let me do this so I’ll enjoy and learn something.” Ultimately, in doing it, I found I was working hard enough for people to say, “She deserves the next step.” That is one. Second, I also took assignments that others sometimes considered a bit risky because they were not always pleasant.
Which examples would those be? I’m curious to know.
I remember one particular example when I was a young economist at the World Bank, and there was a project in Rwanda called the Gishwati Project. It was a dairy project with the idea of enabling poor dairy farmers to upgrade the quality of their cows, produce more milk, produce more milk, and increase their incomes, etc. In doing that, there were a number of issues and mistakes that were made along the way.
The bank had the first phase of the project and the second phase. One of the issues was that to create these pastures for the dairy farm, there was no awareness that the forest was being cut down, which became an issue. Are you deforesting in order to create this dairy farm? It became a question at that time. The Swiss government and some other Europeans were not so happy with the bank in how this was happening.
When it recognized that this wasn’t working, the bank rightly tried to correct these mistakes and put the project back on a good footing. That’s what I liked about the bank. It does learn from its mistakes. However, at that particular time, when they were trying to correct this and to put the project on a better footing, it was considered a risky project because ministers and the president were complaining. Nobody who had their career path wanted anything to do with this.
I was called and asked to take charge of this project, redesign it, and remake it in a way. I took it on, and there were a lot of tears, I have to confess because I found it was as tough as people had said. In doing it successfully, there was a lot of gratitude from my manager and my colleagues, “She took on this tough task and delivered it.” That led to a promotion. It’s those kinds of things. Saying that, once in a while, you can take a considered risk of an assignment that may not be all that pleasant, but if you can turn it around, can also help bring your work to attention.Once in a while, you can take a considered risk of an assignment that may not be all that pleasant, but if you can turn it around, can also help bring your work to attention. Click To Tweet
That’s a very significant point. When I think of that, Dr. Ngozi, I think of the incredible challenge you took on in your first term as Minister of Finance in Nigeria between mid-2003 and mid-2006. You had remarkable achievements in terms of reforming and transforming the Nigerian economy and with former President Obasanjo. Can you take us back in time? For you at the time, what was the perceived risk in that role? Is there a particular moment that was difficult for you in making some of these tough decisions to transform and reform the Nigerian economy?
I was the Minister of Finance for two terms. The first time you mentioned was with President Obasanjo, who was a visionary leader. He wanted to turn the economy around. The most important to him was getting rid of the $30 billion that Nigeria owed to the Paris Club of Creditors.
You laid that negotiation in 2005.
He had a passion to get rid of this debt. He had repeatedly tried to talk to heads of state, and everyone promised it would be done. At the end of the day, someone told him, “There is your (Nigerian) citizen at the World Bank who knows something about debt.” When he got a second term, he approached me to come and help with the debt management issues.
I initially went, not as Finance Minister, rather I took a leave of absence from the World Bank of about 6 months or 9 months to go and help systematize the debt data because it was all over the place in seven agencies, and nobody quite knew when the debt service was due and what was owed to whom. I created a debt management office. I got all the data in one place on our debt.
We adopted the Commonwealth software for debt management. We put all that in place. He told me his dream was, “I want to press a button. I know how much Nigeria owes and who it owes it to and when the debt service will be due.” We got all that done. That led to inviting me back as Finance Minister. When I became the Finance Minister, I said, “We now know the data and where it (the debt) is. The job you have is to get rid of this debt.” It was very tough. There were tough moments because Nigeria is an oil producer.
The attitude then was, “You are well off. You are producing this oil. The price is high on the market. Why should we give you debt relief?” However, we were able to demonstrate, and I did this with the help of a team under the leadership of the President, who provided political help. We worked hard to convince finance ministers. I told the President, “Your fellow Presidents may be saying, ‘This is fine. We’ll help you,’ but unless and until the Finance Ministers agree, and we do some of the technical work and the reforms needed, we will not get the debt relief.”
Nobody believed we would ever get it. I can tell you that. That was tough. That was a bit dicey. We did all the work and the reforms. Doing the reforms was not easy. We needed to privatize some of our loss-making state-owned enterprises. There are winners and losers when you do that. That wasn’t easy, but we were able to deliver those reforms by working systematically for 18 months to 2 years.
We convinced the UK and Chancellor Gordon Brown was the Chancellor of the Exchequer then, to back us and become the sponsor because the UK was our biggest creditor. Once he believed in what we were doing, he was able to help us with the rest of the Paris Club creditors. We were able to then go into negotiations and get this debt relief. It sounds all nice now rolling off my tongue, but every step of the way, there were so many obstacles, but we overcame them.
That’s remarkable, and we could unpack so much more on that. However, we have limited time now. I’m curious to know you have exemplified remarkable leadership, not only in Nigeria and Africa but around the world. What is your definition of leadership, and in your mind, what is the future of leadership for the world? What are the critical elements?
Let me start with the future of leadership for the world. Many of the problems we have known that need solutions or solving in the world are problems we call ‘problems of the global commons.’ The pandemic – no one country can solve it on its own. Climate change is an existential threat. No one can solve it on its own. It needs global cooperation. It needs multilateralism. That means that leaders who are willing to put aside their differences and come together to say, “We need to solve these problems together.”
That requires real leadership. It requires courage when maybe the people you are leading in your country may not necessarily want you to speak to other countries because they feel they’re not that friendly to them. But as a leader, you have to rise above it because you know that if these problems are not solved, it’ll be to the detriment of your people.
A leader must listen. To be a good leader, you have to be a good listener and internalize, but then, a leader has to have courage sometimes to do the things that people may not like or think necessary but which you see as being big and necessary for your country or the globe down the line. That’s leadership. Having the courage of your convictions. That’s good leadership. What does that mean? Leadership is very difficult.
Leadership is not easy. It means taking unpleasant decisions, sometimes big and small, and having the courage to stick with them. I’m not saying you stick to something at all costs if it doesn’t work, but if you know this will bring good to your country or the world, you must try to deliver and demonstrate to your people that this is the right way to go. Some of the qualities are courage, conviction, and the ability to take a considerate risk now and again to lead.
If you had to define leadership, what would you say it is?
I’ve defined leadership as courage and conviction. Having that courage of your convictions. Taking considered risks to lead and listening carefully. Those are some of the qualities of leadership.
You’ve written passionately about women in leadership. In your TED Talk, you spoke about the role of women in Africa being open for business. Why are you passionate women, and what do you think women bring uniquely to you to leadership?
First of all, I’m passionate about the role of women because I see many women who are capable. They have the qualities that I spoke about. They’re compelling, smart, and courageous but don’t get the chance. That is why one has to be passionate to put the case that beyond the fact that women are 50% of the population and deserve an equal opportunity economically when you do the analysis, it doesn’t make sense to leave women out of occupations and leadership because if you quantify, you lose it.Women are 50% of the population and deserve an equal opportunity economically. When you do the analysis, it just doesn't make sense to leave women out of occupations and out of leadership. Click To Tweet
You are losing the qualities they can put on the table. You are losing the contributions they can make to the economy in their work and leadership roles. It makes economic sense. It is smart. It makes social sense to have women in leadership when they’re proven to be capable leaders. Why do you leave them aside? That is the case we’re trying to make. It’s not a fictional one.
It is a true one in the sense that when you look at any enterprise within populations, you see women who are smart, capable, and courageous. They have what it takes to lead, but the question is, why is there not equal opportunity in this leadership? We say that men have a role to play. One, they need to get out of the way sometimes to allow women the chance to lead. Second, they need to sponsor, back, support women and believe in their abilities so they can do both and advocate for women.
The book I wrote with Julia Gillard on Women and Leadership was trying to look at the histories and stories of some of our foremost women leaders now, all the way from Theresa May, the former Prime Minister of the UK, to Hillary Clinton to Ellen Johnson and Joyce Banda. We interviewed a whole range of compelling women to try and tease out the essential elements and how they got where they were. How did they get to leadership positions, and is there a common thread that we can pull out?
Turning to a leader who loved the role of women and supported the role of women, Nelson Mandela, I know you had two personal and very close memories of Mandela. The first was in 2005 in Trafalgar Square at the South African Embassy in London when Madiba joined the ‘Make Poverty History’ rally. Your second time was in Mozambique with the former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, trying to get kids back to school and looking at schools and (Mandela’s) Madiba’s view on education. I was wondering, Dr. Ngozi, is there a specific moment where Madiba touched how you think, act, and lead in the world now? Can you share that with us? Also, is his leadership still relevant to the world?
Madiba’s leadership will always be relevant to the world. I say that with so much sincerity because of what he stood for and what he went through, I don’t think there are many human beings who can replicate that. I’m not trying to say he was a saint, but he could endure so much and kept a sense of humor about him, a sense of place and purpose.
To come out without the visible scars of bitterness and so on. Also to be able to lead his country and take it forward. That person is unique and will continue to have a unique place in history. Both Madiba and his wife, Graça Machel, touched my heart with respect to the value of education. If you look at Madiba’s writings, you see there is continuous reference to the value he placed on education.
Graça has also made that a life’s work in many ways. I already believed in the value of education from my upbringing and from my own parents. However, listening to those who have been through so much and trying to pick what they essentially think we have to get right in the world if we are to change this. You see that education is at the core of what they think we must do. We’ve got to get our young people, especially the girls, the education they need.
If you can do this right, you can change the world. That touched me. That firm belief that we have an instrument that should be accessible to all the young people who need it and who want it. As a way of transforming them as individuals, their households, and families, and then transforming their countries and the world. That message that they tried to send about the value of education meant a lot to me.
Was that during your time in Mozambique with former UK President Gordon Brown? Is that the conversation you were recalling, then?
Yeah. It was the conversation we had with Madiba, Graça, and Gordon. All of us at the time were in Mozambique.
Now, a couple of fun facts about you. I know you are married to a wonderful neurosurgeon. How do neurosurgery and economics work?
They probably don’t, which is why it’s a good union because my husband is a critic. He always kept me on my toes by saying, “I don’t understand this economic concept of why you’re doing what you’re doing in the bank, and it doesn’t make sense anyway. It’s not working for the people.” I was always on my toes to explain to him why any particular project or program was sensible because he was a critic, a friendly one.
Not having the same profession makes for a very lively and interesting conversation at home. I suppose people with the same could also have good conversations, but he would come home with very different stories and things. Doctors don’t talk too much about their patients, but they crack a lot of jokes. They have a lot of humor. He was always cracking jokes, and I was always bringing these serious stories about what was happening around the world. He won’t let me relax a little. He would be criticizing it, and I would be defending it.
What is one fun fact that few people know about your childhood?
I don’t know if it’s a fun fact, maybe not so fun. My childhood was mixed with luxury and hardship. I grew up in the village with my grandmother as a typical village girl. Even though we were privileged in the village, I got to do all the things village girls do, like farm, stream, clean, and learn how to cook at a very early age.
My parents then came back from abroad, where they went to study, and I parachuted into a much more luxurious life at the university but then came the war and then real hardship. Not having enough to eat, losing all your possessions, dodging bullets, and sleeping rough. A fact that people don’t know about me that I often joke about is I’m as comfortable sleeping on a feather bed as I am on the floor because I’ve done both for years and survived. I don’t know if it’s a fun fact, but it’s probably something not many people know.
The other fun fact, the third fun fact, ultimately, when your legacy is fulfilled, what do you most want to be remembered for?
What I want to be remembered for is trying to deliver for people. I did my best to use my knowledge and talent to go beyond myself and deliver meaningful economic change for others, especially the less privileged people in developing countries. That’s my passion. Changing things materially for people in developing countries for people who are not so privileged and making a difference in their lives. If I succeed in doing a little bit of that, I’ve accomplished something.
Dr. Ngozi, you are well on the road to doing that. It’s such a privilege to have you as part of this Global Mandela Leadership Movement For Change in the world, to remind our generation, and to empower and inspire the next. I’m looking forward to doing more with you and speaking to different people worldwide. Thank you for your remarkable service and the gift of you. We thank you.
Thank you so much. Thank you for the initiative that you’re taking. It’s fantastic.
I look forward to more. Take care.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Director General of the World Trade Organization, is a remarkable global leader who has been recognized worldwide with multiple honors, accolades, and awards. Little known about her is that she had a mixed childhood in her young life. Living in a rural village, with mixed modesty and luxury, and living with life-threatening hardship, cooking and cleaning in the village, hungry times, and dodging war bullets.
While Dr. Ngozi shares her thoughts around the definition of leadership and the future of leadership, which includes taking considered risks and the critical component of courage, these are not only leadership philosophies. She has consistently chosen courage over comfort in how she thinks, acts, and leads in the world now. It is well-known that as the former Finance Minister of Nigeria, Dr. Ngozi led a high-profile campaign to transform and reform the Nigerian economy and to clean up corruption, which made her dangerously unpopular.
Perhaps less well-known is that during her second term as Finance Minister of Nigeria, on December the 9th, 2012, her 82-year-old mother, a retired professor and medical doctor, Dr. Kamene Okonjo, was kidnapped. The kidnappers demanded that Dr. Ngozi resign as the Finance Minister of Nigeria. Her father, a force of nature and a Professor of Economics, came to her side and, despite the risks, said, “Absolutely not.” Thankfully, and perhaps intimidated by the high-profile search for the kidnappers, her mother was released five days after the kidnapping.
What is courage? Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor. It’s a Latin word that means ‘heart.’ In its earliest forms, courage meant ‘to speak one’s mind with all of one’s heart.’ Brené Brown defines courage as ‘taking risks and showing up without knowing the outcome.’
Courage is not a given.
Consistently choosing courage over comfort is not guaranteed.
Good people go bad.
Without fortified moral courage, we are often left confused and wondering, “What happened to the person we thought we knew? Why did they sell out? What went wrong?”
I leave you with two questions for reflection.
What are the pillars of your moral courage?
What will it take for you to fortify your moral courage so that you can strengthen your backbone and choose courage over comfort?
Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices, and bold leadership is about taking bold action one small step at a time. One small step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Come back soon and share with your friends. Join this Global Mandela Leadership Movement For Change because if not you, then who? If not now, then when?
Take care, and take thoughtful, bold action.
- Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
- Women and Leadership
- World Trade Organization
- TED Talk – 6 Essential Lessons for Women Leaders | Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
About Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a global finance expert, economist, and international development professional with over 30 years of experience working in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is the Director-General of the World Trade Organization [WTO] and the immediate past Chair of the Board of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. She also sits on the Boards of Standard Chartered PLC and Twitter Inc.
She is a skilled negotiator and has brokered numerous agreements, which have produced win-win outcomes in negotiations. She is regarded as an effective consensus builder and an honest broker enjoying the trust and confidence of governments and other stakeholders.
Previously, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala twice served as Nigeria’s Finance Minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) and briefly acted as Foreign Minister in 2006, the first woman to hold both positions. She distinguished herself by carrying out major reforms which improved the effectiveness of these two Ministries and the functioning of the government machinery. She had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the No. 2 position of Managing Director, Operations. As a development economist and Finance Minister, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala steered her country through various reforms ranging from macroeconomics to trade, financial, and real sector issues.