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Ayuma Michelle Leadership Coach Rise Africa Rise

Leadership through storytelling: An interview with Ayuma Michelle

The world is undergoing dramatic change.

The rise of exponential technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, fintech and many more are going to change the fabric of our societies fundamentally.​

These dramatic changes will also require that we re-evaluate our attitudes, beliefs, practices and way of doing things. What worked in the 20th century, will no longer be relevant in the 21st century.

One important area that needs to be re-evaluated is leadership. What does leadership mean? Who can lead? What forms does leadership take in the 21st century? How will leadership play out in a digital economy?

The stories we have bought into about leadership have for a large part been determined by a fairly consistent narrative.  With some variations this story told us that leaders tend to be men who are bold, unshakable, competitive, driven and larger than life figures who lead their people to some promised land.

The way we tell ourselves this story may have changed over the centuries and is continuing to change as the infographic below shows, but the actual content has remained fairly consistent. 

Evolution of storytelling

Evolution of Storytelling by

​Just study the majority of history books. Or the bible. Think about the story the majority of movies portray. The list could go on.

The question we have to increasingly ask ourselves is this: Does this story still hold true in the 21st century?

Is this view about leadership still relevant in an increasingly digital economy where disruption affects everything from societal structures, to regulations and our values?

We wanted to find out and talked to Ayuma Michelle who is disrupting this old age story through developing a new approach around leadership and storytelling. Ayuma is currently serving Female & Executive Changemakers across the globe as a Leadership Storytelling Coach at Leading through Story (LetS), a for-profit Social Enterprise based in Nairobi which she started in Nov 2015. Her initiative inspires the application of authentic storytelling as an effective skill for awakening adaptive leadership and addressing the global gender gap.

To date, Ayuma has taught more than 430 women, executive leaders, youth, and social entrepreneurs to awaken and inspire leadership through authentic storytelling for positive change.

Ayuma Michelle Lets

Leadership Storytelling Coach at Leading through Story (LetS) Ayuma Michelle

1) You coach women and girls in leadership through storytelling. What does that entail? Why through storytelling?

When I recently asked a group of female leaders to share with me some of the personal challenges they face as leaders. They shared various responses including: negotiating for better pay; getting their voice heard in meetings; saying no; work-life balance; misogyny at the workplace; breaking status quo in decision making; being vulnerable around employees; and forgiveness of self after failure.

Some of these challenges, I personally battle with as a female leader as well. If you look closely, most of these challenges boil down to a kind of exposed vulnerability either by doing or not doing something. And vulnerability is the window to deeply-rooted values that we protect so dearly. This is where storytelling comes in, because stories bottom-line are about values.

storytelling is not just for campfires

Storytelling infographic by fathom

Coaching female changemakers to use storytelling as an effective leadership skill, invites a deep interview with their “inner selves” to harvest their core values. They get some deep insights about themselves and the values told by their own stories, which builds self-awareness and confidence. As Steve Jobs said, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” The dots are the values transferred through stories. By learning how to use their authentic stories as creative leadership resources for self-awareness and relationship building, this equips them to be adaptive and inspiring leaders who use vulnerability as leadership strength.

The best thing about story is that it’s a free resource, energy and gift that everybody’s got. Everyone has a story that needs to be told. I serve female changemakers by encouraging them to realise the powerful resource they’ve got within them, for articulating and commanding the change they wish to see in the world. This practically happens through online and offline leadership development workshops, exclusive coaching sessions, and executive consultations. The goal is to awaken adaptive and inspiring leadership through authentic storytelling.

Ayuma Michelle Leadership Coach Rise Africa Rise

Ayuma Michelle Leadership coaching

2) With the acceleration towards a digital economy new leadership approaches are needed in the 21st century. What do you think these are and what role can women play shaping leadership?

The very mention of the word “digital” in today’s economy somewhat promises wide access, speed, effectiveness, interconnectedness and even cost saving. No wonder most organisations are now taking pride in being digitally present for that “cool kid” factor, to stay relevant in a global market that’s quickly embracing the internet of things. Global professionals are quickly adapting to the evolving market as “digital citizens,” which often promises employment in a global market with a growing appetite for all things digital. This is easily reflected on the Future Work Skills 2020 Report by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) for the University of Phoenix Research Institute. Virtual collaboration, New media literacy, Computational thinking are highlighted in the report as some of the 10 skills for the future workforce.

What excites me most is that storytelling is a creative tool that promotes the effectiveness of the 10 future work skills. Also, that women will be such great investments to such a future work environment due to a set of skills and abilities women could naturally, intuitively and professionally offer – especially female millennials.

PWC shares this unique “femme-ability” of the future work force through The Female Millenial: A new era of talent report. It then becomes clear how women, especially in leadership roles, in the future workforce will add to the success of organisations and global economy. Women in the future work place will add to the diversity, work-life strategies, feedback culture, and financial empowerment due to their reputation of being great at reinvesting back into their communities. And with more than 71% female millennials wanting to work outside their home countries, the virtual digital space could be a great catalyst for this. Whether organisations like it or not, the millennials are fast reshaping the workforce and leaving women leaders out could be organisational suicide.

Sheryl Sandberg captured a great example using Apple when she penned an article on Cosmopolitan Magazine on the need for more women in the tech field. Apple released a health app that could help people track health metrics like blood sugar, but not menstruation. If women had been involved in the process, especially at executive level, the health app could have been more inclusive of female users. As a result, Apple took a year to finally modified the app, which of course is an expensive process that could have been avoided by female-inclusive executive decisions.

3) In your experience, what is the differences in leadership between men and women? Can we draw generalizations like that?

Yes, we can actually draw generalizations like that for both good and unfortunate reasons. The good is that women and men are naturally designed to lead in different but equally powerful ways. A positive example is how even at entry level, men negotiate harder for salary, and how women effectively wage conflict without violence.

We only get the best of leadership when men and women lead through collaboration. So it’s unfortunate that barriers have for generations been placed to paralyse female leadership. Some of these include social, religious, cultural, mental, economic, and behavioural barriers among many.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2015 by the World Economic Forum indicates that lack of progress with closing the gender gap is damaging global economic growth. In Africa, we recently witnessed this kind of paralysis of female leadership when the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari during a visit in Germany said, I don't know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.

Yet his wife Aisha is actually a businesswoman and activist who’d been supporting him on his presidential campaigns. He said this about his wife of 27 years, while standing next to Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. If the Nigerian premier celebrated Aisha’s kind of leadership through business and activism, it would have rebuked the archaic narrative that he instead chose to share about women. I believe male-female leadership collaboration is one of the effective ways, in addition to listening with empathy, to engage men in the motivation of female leadership in Africa.

4) The 2016 Future jobs report by the World Economic Forum explores barriers that women face in ascending into leadership positions. In your experience, how valid is that report in relation to the field of social innovation in Africa?

The Future of Jobs 2016 Report by the World Economic Forum identifies unconscious bias as a top barrier to gender parity. Basically, a Y-chromosome determines how easily one accesses opportunities in the workforce. Like many African women who are trying their very best to build a great career, earn a decent living, and make a difference in their communities, I can attest to the truth of the report.

I remember starting out as a social entrepreneur two years ago at 26 years of age and being denied a chance to start a business bank account by three major banks in Kenya. The ironic thing is that the banks boast about banking services tailored for women, yet in the fine print, the rates for such services are premium. In the end, I learned that the relationship managers, both men and women, had rejected my request just because I am young (meaning unstable), unmarried (meaning no emergency backup from “big daddy”) and running a very small enterprise (meaning small profit margins). One relationship manager had the audacity to tell me, “You feed us, we feed you,” hinting at the fact that my enterprise wasn’t profitable enough.

In the end, I took a loan from my parents, but it wasn’t enough capital to keep my for-profit social enterprise afloat in its first year. I then realised why there are so many microfinance banks for women in Kenya; false marketing of banking services hides the fact that major banks in East Africa still see women as high-risk clients.

Also, I understood why despite having a stable job, my own mother like many Kenyan women, had for years invested her money through Chamas; informal cooperative societies that are normally used to pool and invest savings by people in East Africa, and particularly Kenya. This had motivated me to actually join Chamas with young and older women at former work places. It was like an initiation into the reality of Kenyan women who struggle with fair access to finance.

5) One of the reasons the report points out is the lack of female role models. How relevant is that in relation to Africa?

It is true that there is a lack of female role models in Africa, in that they are fewer than should be. Of course there are great communities and individuals who do this so well, but it doesn’t stop the fact that the demand for mentorship is high but the mentors available are few.

I have seen this “lack of mentorship” both at a personal and professional level. It took me a while to put a finger on what exactly it is without using the misleading notion that, “women are their worst enemies.” This statement is an archaic, repressive and adds absolutely nothing to progress in this world.

Ayuma Michelle Pace Kenya

Ayuma Michelle coaching youth through storytelling

I will never buy into that story simply because I have seen that there’s more to it than a dogmatic opinion about women. There are two main factors I have observed especially while networking among women that create a web of issues that lead to the situation of few female role models.

The first is that there are such few roles available for female leaders which leads to polarization, in popular culture is often referred to as the “Mean Girl Effect.” Polarization is real, and it leads to rivalry among women for the few spots available. And when one finally lands a position, survival kicks-in leading to keeping other women at a distance, sometimes even blocking others from a chance to take-over.

A friend once told me about a workmate who befriend the HR manager, and used her exclusive open-door advantage to delete all job applications for an internally advertised new position at the organisation. So my friend and other workmates never got a chance to fairly interview for the job because the HR manager said that there had only been one application submitted.

The only way I see this situation being resolved is by switching from a competitive attitude to a collaborative one. It is in seeing fellow women who get there first, as those who represent their voice and open up opportunities for those who follow to be lifted up into leadership as well.

The second thing is that there has been such a dangerous narrative about success and leadership, heavily fuelled by outdated cultural beliefs and compromised societal morals. This narrative is responsible for most of the problems African nations currently face as they trickle down from leadership. This narrative gives no room at all for vulnerability, female leadership and authenticity about one’s real struggles as a leader. It is a narrative driven by patriarchy, quest for power and accumulation of wealth that is currently misleading African youth and their perception about success.

A Kenyan Youth Survey Report by the East African Institute showed that Kenyan youth are okay with getting rich through corruption as long as they don’t end up in jail. The narrative is basically promoting the idea of anything works as long as you don’t get caught. As a coach, I have seen this as a huge problem when it comes to role modelling among women and girls. It requires opening up and allowing people to trace one’s authentic leadership footprint; the good, the bad and the ugly. But not many “mentor- fit” women are confident about exposing themselves to a degree that would make them look vulnerable and “prove society right” that women lack the grit it takes to succeed.

This fear denies others an opportunity to learn about the real face of success; the not so fun, the lonely, the painful, the embarrassing, the vulnerable 90% of their story which is often left out of success testimonials. But most importantly, to share that failure is normal and a significant ingredient towards success.

The aftermath is often mentors or role models with walls built around them which makes them inaccessible; emotionally, physically and intellectually. And when some get the courage to mentor and it reaches a point of having to keep it real with mentees, some jump-ship or suddenly become unreachable.

If more African women leaders accepted their full story and saw their vulnerabilities as strength, then our role modelling would become more effective and long-lasting because it’s fuelled by truth.

6) What needs to be done to have more female role models in social innovation?

I believe that there needs to be a culture and attitude shift from competition to collaboration among women, and celebrating vulnerability as strength. And it begins with building self-confidence which would allow us to see in others what we celebrate and see in ourselves.

We need to lift each other up more with open minds, open hearts and open will to learn and not so harshly judge ourselves and others. In Africa, it’s evident that people move faster by doing things together, like a popular African proverb says, If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

And vulnerability adds to the togetherness through connected values on a common purpose. It’s like an unwritten law of African life that collaboration really works for us. It just does! Social innovation isn’t new to Africa, especially among women because we are naturally community enablers. It’s an old knowledge that we need to apply to the modern context as we explore solutions together.

Ayuma Michelle LETS coaching

How to solve a current leadership dilemma in life and business before 2017!

There are role models all around us, even in unlikely places and circumstances. My late grandmother Rhoda, was a great example I learned from about social innovation. When her husband was kidnapped by British troops and forced to fight as a soldier in World War II in Burma, she had to think fast about how to provide for her children.

So she rounded up a group of women in her neighbourhood and church and invited them to cultivate the ancestral land that belonged to her husband. They cleared the land, planted seeds, nurtured the crops and finally enjoyed great harvest where every woman in the group had enough food to feed their families and leave some for the next planting season.

It didn’t require rocket science or a sophisticated design thinking exercise. A problem arose about food security in the community and by coming together for a common purpose, the women found a solution that kept them going even after the war.

When we see someone beautiful in ourselves, we begin to notice the beauty in others who are around us as well. Suddenly, our eyes, minds and hearts open up to seeing, believing and bringing out the beauty in others as well. I believe that’s what mentorship is really about.

7) Another reason mentioned is confidence aspiration. How is that holding women back and what can be done to change that?

A lesson I recently learned from a friend’s story is that fear and courage are cousins. That it takes one to see the other, which is so true. Also, that it isn’t fear that stops us, but instead it is our lack of courage. This explains why courage aspiration is holding women back from leadership. Fear gets a woman thinking, “What if I fall?” and Courage has her thinking, “But what if I fly?”

It takes one to see the other but it often takes courage to get things done. So if women had the courage to acknowledge all of the voices of fear yet still say, “I’ll still do it anyway,” that’s when courage kicks in and obstacles are broken. I personally had such a conversation with myself when my previous social enterprise failed and I sat down crying on the floor at home. It was actually my birthday and I’d hosted my last event with loyal customers.

I remember eating a chocolate cup cake, saying a prayer and telling myself, “Things will get better. If it can be done, it will be done, and shall be done.” That attitude shift helped me see failure as a teacher and so I ended up applying for a scholarship at the Amani Institute to learn the ins-and-outs of social innovation management. I got accepted, and one year later here I am, a leadership storytelling coach running LetS, a for-profit social enterprise serving female and executive leaders around the globe on using storytelling as an effective adaptive leadership skill.

Simply put, women need to believe in themselves more. They’ve already got it within them, they just need to believe that they can actually do it and do it well. I believe that the greatest battles we fight in life are inside ourselves. So if we champion from the inside, we become fearless on the outside.

8) For women who are struggling with these challenges outlined in the report, what practical advice do you have for dealing with those issues on a daily basis?

The best practical advice and example I would have for women dealing with the challenges fuelling the global gender gap is to believe in their authentic stories enough to tell them, and to tap into the power of community because they are not alone as we deal with these struggles. A shared problem offers an equal or greater opportunity for a shared solution.

A great example is the African natural hair movement. Women are embracing wearing their hair its natural state while daring to redefine beauty standards, most of which are influenced by western-world physical appearances. Before the movement, there had been a silent frustration as African women manipulate their hair texture with chemicals, straighten it with heat, or even tuck it away under artificial or human hair additions.

And it had always been an expensive affair going to the salon, and wearing hair natural would be considered unappealing, even cheap or even non-professional. We recently witnessed this when a South African high school banned girls from wearing afros and natural hairstyles saying that it was untidy. In the US, we saw this when a federal court judge ruled in favour of a company that refused to hire a woman who wore her natural hairstyle.

The tables have turned, and ladies started chopping off their old hair to grow it fresh and natural while learning how to take care of their natural hair. Today, there are active African natural hair communities in Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana as women gather online and offline to share ideas, challenges, tips and stories about their natural hair journeys.

More African women are embracing their natural appearance and inspiring confidence for others to realise the same. The best part is that it’s beautifully profitable and women from across the continent are collaborating to innovate and build successful businesses around natural African hair; Blogs, Hair products, Salons, Youtube tutorials, Magazines, Fashion, Makeup lines, Health & Nutrition and Events. The African natural hair movement has created a system that sustains itself by women working together towards a common purpose. And yes, I proudly wear my hair natural.

9) Have you noticed any challenges for women that are particular to social innovation compared to other sectors?

Social Innovation quite frankly is a thankless job, that’s a fact. And one has to be prepared for that before falling for the overly optimistic value it promises emotionally. That’s why it is very important to innovate around something that is personal, tied to a personal core value, because that stuff keeps you going when the going gets tough and lonely.

Yes, lonely! The cheering, warms hugs and smiles often fades away and behind the scenes, most changemakers face tough realities in their pursuit of positive change. A kind of loneliness (physical, mental, emotional, financial, or even social) sometimes creeps in which offers a temptation to jump-ship and just do what everybody else is doing to get through life.

When the doubt kicks in, with persistence it becomes a reminder to examine your invested values. That’s when it becomes clear why you really want to inspire social change. As a social innovator, I had been offering my services to all types of changemakers, but since I previously faced great discrimination for being a female social innovator with my previous enterprise, it became personal.

So personal that on June 2016 I chose to specifically serve Female and Executive Changemakers. Doors have been shut and I’ve faced lots of gender, racial, financial and sexual discrimination. But I still wake up, dress up and show up every day because it’s not about money. It’s personal to me that female leaders believe in their stories enough to use them as tools of effective leadership.

It is personal to me that executives learn that authentic human connection and joy is the ultimate purpose of work. It is personal to me that people tell their stories, so that no one else does. A great lesson I’ve learnt is that not everyone will be part of my change maker story, but that I’ll still have people who believe in me and my work matter how few they may be.

As long as the problem I’m solving is authentic and naturally taps into other people’s values, there is still work to be done. It is very encouraging know that there are many brave women who’ve successfully pursued and achieved their calling for social change, and there are those who are still on that road and realising that it’s worthwhile. Social change maker support is significant because we simply cannot do it all alone, and we can do so much more together.

10) Where have you seen the biggest improvements in the last 5-10 years?

The biggest improvement that I have personally witnessed in the last decade is the general awareness that female leadership matters; education, information, campaigns, African success stories like Mo Abudu.

This is what inspired me to even pursue social innovation as a young African leader, because there’s lots of information out there that validates that it is possible for me to do so and successfully.

It is underlined on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with themes that primarily touch on the importance of involving or supporting women in quest of ending poverty and ensuring prosperity for all.

11) What is your personal leadership philosophy and what has shaped it?

My leadership philosophy is Ubuntu – “I am because we are”. It’s a human kindness that translates into a shared success of a people. I come from a traditional community of small-scale farmers. And I have grown to appreciate the success of collaborative farming principles that can be applied beyond the farm and into everyday life and leadership. It’s simple. When people work together on a common purpose; the more they produce, the better they perform and the more fun we have along the way.

Ayuma Michelle in dialouge with Masai Mara

Ayuma Michelle in dialouge with Masai Mara

12) If you could time travel back to day one of your social enterprise and have 15min with your former self to communicate any lessons you've acquired with the intention of saving yourself mistakes and heart ache, what would you tell yourself?

You will make mistakes and fail, but you will have fun learning and growing from it. You will cry, but it will heal you. Your heart will get broken, but it will only keep getting stronger. Your values will be challenged, but your spirit will never be broken. Your money will run out, but your passion will keep you fuelled.

Many will walk away, but the few who choose to believe in you will help you do such great things. Do what your gut tells you, and then always learn from what happens next. And no matter what, never stop believing in yourself and the great purpose that is within you.

13) What is your favourite digital tool to do business and why?

No doubt, it has got to be LinkedIn. Simply because of the following: Friendly user experience through web and mobile applications; Storytelling ability through published posts on the personal LinkedIn blog; Networking at a global scale; Community building tools through LinkedIn groups; the Human approach to talking about business on the ever inspiring and informative timeline; the ability to find and be found by connectors and influencers yet conveniently have your portfolio/CV readily available to view; smart analytics that evaluate my interactions; and the less formal approach to getting great recommendations which validate professional experience. It also helps that you can do so much with the free version of LinkedIn without even having to go premium.

Also, there’s so much information out there by LinkedIn business experts like Lewis Howes who’ve leveraged LinkedIn to smartly and successfully grow their businesses to a scale that goes beyond the ordinary. It is amazing because I get to showcase the personality behind my business in a way that people can relate to the values that propel my business.

Also it helps me network and connect with other professionals from around the globe in a way that is both professional but also social. For example, I have received business opportunities just because of articles I’ve published on LinkedIn simply because the stories helped me translate values that connected with exactly what other business owners needed.

Ayuma Michelle Linkedin

Linkedin Posts on Storytelling and Leadership by Ayuma Michelle

Business to business (B2B) connections are traditionally straight to the point and have no room for social fluff. But as the workplace environment keeps getting more personalised, businesses need to show and connect through personality. And what better way to do so than through authentic storytelling that communicates your business values? At the end of day, businesses are run by people. A digital tool like LinkedIn acts as a great middleman between businesses and the decision makers.

Ayuma Michelle twitter

Thank you Ayuma for sharing your insights around leadership and storytelling with our community. This is very much appreciated. New approaches to leadership are certainly required for the digital economy and we are happy to see that your work shows what leadership in the digital age could look like.

If you would like to connect with Ayuma or book leadership coaching, you can follow her on twitter, connect on linkedin or visit her website.

About the Author Rise Africa Rise

Rise Africa Rise is your online guide to tech entrepreneurship and (social) innovation for African entrepreneurs, startups and businesses. Our aim is to provide you with valuable digital strategies, tools and insights to support you in building a world-class and competitive business in the 21st century.

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