Afghan Women Leaders: Growing Confidence, Clarity and Courage

Sylvia Vriesendorp

Principal Technical Advisor for Leadership

Dr. Barakzai and colleague share a laugh.

She asked me, "How do you get confidence? I had it and then lost it. I want it back!" For more than a decade I have been in close contact with Afghan women who, if they were put together and form a government, would change the course of history in their country. Some are older and have proven to be extraordinary leaders, the kind of people who are needed to create the conditions for peace. Others are young and full of energy to turn things around as they watch the international and local debates about Afghanistan's future. And some are in the middle, they are developing their leadership skills in their immediate surroundings, practicing, falling down, brushing themselves off and trying again.

The question from my young colleague resonated with me because the issue of confidence had come up several times during my recent stay in Kabul—how easy it is to get it and how easily it is lost. We know that supportive fathers and mothers, a supportive environment creates confidence with ease. Women lucky to grow up in such an environment often don't even realize how confident they are until they lose it. Some told me they did lose it but they got it back, but others like my young colleague saw their confidence slipping away as they found themselves in an environment that no longer cheered them on.

In our MSH leadership programs like the Leadership Development Program Plus (LDP+) and the Virtual Leadership Development Program, we have developed a simple formula for growing confidence: provide challenges, feedback and support, and then step back and watch what happens and cheer from the side.

When I look at those Afghan women, old and young, who have been developing and using their leadership skills through MSH and other programs, I see confidence. That confidence makes it possible for women to claim their seat at the table, to enter into the conversation, and to speak out without hesitation.

That confidence makes many things possible but it is not enough. If leadership were to be a three-legged stool it needs two other legs: clarity and courage. Clarity about what it is that they are trying to accomplish: what wrong they are trying to right, or what they are indignant or even outraged about. The other leg is courage; courage to swim upstream, and to be ridiculed or maligned by those (men and women alike) who think they stand to lose something of value when these women succeed.

So what was my answer to my colleague? I told her to seek out and surround herself with people who want to see her succeed, and to find people who can provide her with challenges, and then remain at her side to give feedback, support and encouragement. That message begs a question for the rest of us: are we creating the kind of environment that allows these women to become confident and retain that confidence? We need to grow new leaders and build their confidence—that may be the most precious gift we could help provide to these young women.

Sylvia, it was a pleasure to read this. (I want to read your other blog entries too, if only my life would slow down a little bit.) I agree with your conclusion, above. I have learned through ardent & well-meaning trial & error that what helps a girl from an non-affirming culture is not to GIVE her things that can be physically touched; but to slow down the process and sit with her frequently online or in-person, and listen listen listen to her thoughts & ideas with an interested & encouraging look on my face. And then to ask powerful questions...to which the girl must find her own answers. Then it is time to shout jubilantly: Afarin! Zinda Bad!

i wish to say that you have a nice post, I'm so excited to read more of your thoughts.

I am in awe of the work that you do, the lives that you have touched and the enormous difference that you have made in the world. This is a compelling account of the impact that you are having to empower women all over the world! I am proud that we are family and I can live vicariously bearing witness to your accomplishments...