The discussion of what makes a great leader is still an ongoing conversation. Stories of world leaders may provide exemplary role models for us to learn. Others tried to summarize the principles for successful leadership into several key points (Bluesteps, n.d.). Wangari Maathai, one of the greatest female leaders of Africa, has left a legacy of righteous leadership that is still discussed today. This article will examine the leadership potentials depicted by the 2004 Nobel prize winner in her speech and contrast those potentials with other traits that were not present in it.

Two traits of Wangari Maathai that illustrate leadership potential

Two prominent traits that were strongly displayed by Wangari Maathai are her ability to unleash the power of people and her ability to develop a vision and stay true to a set of righteous values. Both of these traits are discussed by Bluesteps (n.d.) as two of the 12 key principles of successful leadership. Maathai also showed various qualities in the 12 key principles, such as that she never talks like it is about herself, but instead it is a collective work from many people. However, the two most stand-out traits that will be examined are how she was able to educate and influence the people for their common good and how she set a high standard in terms of righteous values, such as justice, integrity, and trust.

Through her Green Belt Movement, she successfully rallied the people to plant over 30 million trees that would provide fuel, food, shelter, and additional income (Maathai, 2004). The work was considered extremely difficult due to the underlying economic, political, cultural, and educational issues in the country. However, she maintained her courage and resilience to gradually influence her people. The movement’s impact turned out to only planting trees to become a symbol of democratic struggle, with the ultimate purpose to promote peace and good governance, in addition to environmental purposes (Maathai, 2004). Bluesteps (n.d.) acknowledges that leaders can unleash the power of people through powerful empowerment, and it was exactly what she did.

The second most prominent trait is how she was able to develop a clear vision in difficult circumstances and set righteous values. Bluesteps (n.d.) asserted that strategy will only have little meaning if the vision and the values are not firmly established. She was not trapped in a tunnel vision when she sparked the environmental movement. Instead, she envisioned the solution to various critical issues in society, such as poverty, corruption, abuses of power, and even ethnic conflict. She developed a set of righteous values and was firmly committed to those values. Scholars considered her an exemplary model of righteous leadership (Karenga, 2006), which manifested the pursuit of righteous values and purposes with no regard for the outcome (Kushner, 2009). This trait made her a powerful and charismatic leader among her people.

Consider her speech below.

Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace Prize Speech

A trait that was not present in the speech

One important trait that was not explicitly discussed in Maathai’s speech is how she would leave the legacy of her work by developing leaders and creating opportunities. Bluesteps (n.d.) assured that it is the main role of a leader to develop new leaders. Her movement is not a short-sighted mission. It has rolled the snowball and become a Nobel-worthy movement. Her commitment to the sustainable management of the environment and democratic governance has led her to challenge people with power (Kushner, 2009).

This aspect can be incorporated into the speech by emphasizing that she urges the African youth to take a brave step forward for a good cause. As great as leaders can be, they will eventually pass away and leave only a legacy, and so she will too. New leaders would take the baton of her struggle and continue her movement. Only then, the trees can be kept standing firm as the symbol of peace and the prosperous future of the society.


In her lecture, Wangari Maathai demonstrated various elements of leadership potential. Two of the most significant traits that were displayed in her Nobel prize speech are her ability to unleash the power of the people as well as to develop a vision and set righteous values. Her story of how she paved her way from her early struggles to the point of how big her movement turned out to be significantly reflected both traits. Another trait that can be incorporated into the speech is the development of new leaders and the creation of opportunities. Her movement is huge and long-term in nature, so, new leaders would be necessary to maintain the movement in the future.


BlueSteps. (n.d.). What makes a great leader?  12 key elements of leadership success.

Karenga, M. (2003). MAAT: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. Routledge.

Kushner, J. L. (2009, May). Wangari Maathai: Righteous leader of environmental and social change. In Proceedings of the 50th Annual Adult Education Research Conference (pp. 195-200). Chicago, IL: National Louis University.

Maathai, W.(2004, December 10). Nobel lecture by Wangari Maathai (9 minutes) [Video]. Nobelprize.  


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