Leadership Styles of Benazir Bhutto and Shirin Ebadi

Leadership Styles

Any organization or business has its processes designed according to an internal code of ethics. Such structures as governments and their branches also have lists of rules that their members should follow. However, real-life situations can sometimes be controversial with no written directions on how to act in certain cases. That is when morals and values of an individual come to play an important role in making a decision. Leaders are the ones who may greatly influence ethical culture within an organization by giving an example of behavior, which is later followed by all employees.

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This paper aims to compare the leadership styles of Benazir Bhutto and Shirin Ebadi. These two prominent political activists have made a significant influence on their countries. Despite having many elements of biography in common, they have chosen different methods of achieving their goals. The aspects of culture and ethics are also discussed, as they have one of the most significant roles in both cases.

Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto is one of the most famous women in Pakistan. She was born in Karachi in 1953 in the family of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had to become the fourth president of the country (Ilknur, 2016). She also had two brothers and a sister, being the eldest among them. The privileged position and wealth of her family allowed Benazir to receive education at Harvard and Oxford universities. She earned a bachelor’s degree in international politics in 1973, followed by a master’s level in international law and diplomacy four years later (Ilknur, 2016). She did not stay in the United Kingdom and returned to Pakistan after receiving a diploma.

During that time, the father of Benazir was the prime minister of the country. However, the same year she returned home from the United Kingdom, he was overthrown as a result of a military coup with Mohammad Zia ul-Haq as its leader (Ilknur, 2016). A year later, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed, and the People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) was inherited by Benazir as his elder child. She also experienced prosecution from the new regime of Zia ul-Haq by being placed under a series of house arrests in the period of 1979-1984 (Ilknur, 2016). Additionally, Bhutto spent two following years in exile from Pakistan.

However, one occurrence happened, which helped Benazir to return home. In 1988, President Zia died in a plane crash, leaving no successor (Ilknur, 2016). The following elections were won by the People’s Party of Pakistan, which received the greatest portion of seats in the parliament. As a result, Benazir Bhutto became the country’s prime minister. Nevertheless, her triumph was not lasting, as president Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed the government. The official charges were that Bhutto’s team could not resolve such issues as poverty and high crime levels.

Despite returning to being in opposition, Benazir did not leave the idea of becoming a prime minister again. In 1993, her party won the elections, and she received this position (Ilknur, 2016). However, her government was dismissed again by President Farook Leghari three years later due to charges with corruption. The PPP lost the following elections, and Benazir and her husband were accused by the new regime. Bhutto had to spend several years in exile in London and Dubai, while her husband was put in prison.

While living abroad, Benazir Bhutto did not leave attempts to return to Pakistan and participate in new elections. Her husband was released in 2004 and left the country to join her (Ilknur, 2016). It was not until 2007 that Bhutto received an opportunity to go back to Pakistan. After being eight years in exile, she returned and gave a speech on October 19, which was interrupted by two explosions organized by Al-Qaeda (Ilknur, 2016). Bhutto was not injured, yet two months later she suffered a similar attack from a suicide bomber and died in a hospital.

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Benazir Bhutto was dedicated to the ideals of freedom and democracy. She understood the importance of improving the lives of ordinary citizens rather than strengthening the military sector of Pakistan. Bhutto put much force in developing such spheres as education and human rights, trying to raise her country to the standards of the Western world. She has given simple people of Pakistan the hope for a democratic future and social justice for everyone.

Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi is a former Iranian judge and human rights activist. She is a great example of a female leader that inspires people. Ebadi was born in 1947 in the city of Hamadan, Iran, in a family of Mohammad Ali, who gave lectures on commercial law (Russel, 2017).

Her family soon moved to the country’s capital, where she remained until adulthood. Despite living in a patriarchal society, Ebadi was treated equally with her brothers. Her father always encouraged her to develop such values as independence and strength and to acquire a well-paid profession. As a result, Shirin Ebadi entered the law school, from where she graduated at 28 years, becoming the first and the youngest woman to serve as a judge in Iran (Russel, 2017). This was an extraordinary start, which promised much to the young specialist.

However, the following events prevented Ebadi from developing this type of career. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution dramatically transformed the country, changing the entire system (Russel, 2017). Ebadi had to leave her job since the new order prevented women from making decisions that were mandatory for men to follow. She was offered the position of the court’s secretary, which she declined. This was the start of her career as a private lawyer and a human rights activist.

As a consequence of the Revolution, Ebadi was forced to abandon her practice. She began publishing books and articles on social subjects like justice, liberty, and others. Ebadi also created organizations defending human and children rights.

It was only after 14 years after that she received the possibility to resume her lawyer activities (Russel, 2017). She soon became one of the most prominent activists to defend the rights of women and children. Ebadi was not afraid to speak up and protect various people in courts, including controversial cases. Her dedication to restoring justice in Iran led her to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which was later taken away by the government.

Unfortunately, Shirin Ebadi experienced pressure from the Iranian administration throughout her career as an activist. The cases she worked on, which included evidence against the government for a series of murders, led her to imprisonment several times. Her husband was also put to jail, spending several years there. Ebadi was always dedicated to her country and wanted to transform it through her professional activities.

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In her book, Ebadi (2016) admits that it was unthinkable for her to leave Iran. However, the pressure from the government has forced her to move abroad, as she has taken an opportunity to stay after a foreign seminar in 2009 (Russel, 2017). Shirin Ebadi currently lives in exile, yet it does not prevent her from receiving threats from the Iranian government. She is constantly receiving death threats as a means to silence her (Michaelsen, 2018). However, this does not stop Ebadi from fighting for human rights as she has done before.

Similarities and Differences

There are many things in common between Benazir Bhutto and Shirin Ebadi. Firstly, both became prominent female leaders in predominantly Muslim countries. Nowadays, even in the Western world, it is difficult for a woman to receive a position of a judge or a prime minister. The task is even more challenging in those countries, where Islam is the main religion of the population. Many of its rules prevent women from acting as leaders or decision-makers, as they are initially perceived as not equal to men. Possible that the activities of Benazir Bhutto and Shirin Ebadi caused dissatisfaction not only of their opposition in the government but also among ordinary people who did not wish to see women in charge.

The second characteristic which is similar for both Bhutto and Ebadi is the social and political situation in which they had to exist. Pakistan and Iran in the previous decades were marked by the high level of poverty and insufficient access to education, especially for women and children. Although most of the population of each country was literate, it was not enough for receiving a well-paid job. The political situation also lacked stability both in Iran and Pakistan.

Existing regimes were frequently overthrown by military forces and authoritarian governments that came to power significantly limited human rights. Benazir Bhutto and Shirin Ebadi had to face a new reality and fight for the order they were dedicated to from a young age.

The democratic course is the third characteristic shared by these two female leaders. Both were very well educated, which helped them to develop such values as respect for social justice, human rights, equality for women and children, and others. Bhutto and Ebadi worked hard to gain excellence in careers, for which they had studied. Moreover, their life experiences served as an example of how much had still to be changed in their societies. For instance, both Bhutto and Ebadi were married women with children, which added difficulties on their professional path.

At the same time, it is important to mark the differences between these two leaders. Firstly, it is the sphere of activities and the scope of responsibilities that each of them had. Shirin Ebadi was a significant figure in the judicial system of Iran when being a judge. However, her influence did not go beyond the court as long as she did not start to publish books and articles about human rights. Even after returning to practice as a lawyer, Ebadi had limited powers to change the entire society of the country. The two organizations that she founded to protect women and children could not help everyone in the country, as they were not a part of the governmental structure.

On the contrary, Benazir Bhutto had all the administrative power to serve her needs from the start. From a young age, she was the leader of one of the most popular political parties in Pakistan. Besides, she had the previous experience and understanding of how the government functions since her father used to be in this sphere for a long time. After winning the elections, she could use her position as a prime minister to implement reforms in the society of Pakistan.

Another difference is the role that a family had in the lives of each of these leaders. Benazir Bhutto always supported her husband and worked closely with him during both terms of her being a prime minister. He was in charge of different cabinets to promote her line of politics. When he was released after being imprisoned for eight years, he joined his Bhutto in her exile. Shirin Ebadi, on the contrary, always used to put her work before her marriage. In one of the interviews, she admitted that one of the things her husband had told her after four years of staying in prison is that her activities had been ruining their family (Luscombe, 2016). He never believed that Ebadi’s fight for human rights could bring democracy to Iran. Thus, she had to take that path alone, without any support from her partner.

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Leadership Analysis

When discussing what kind of leaders where Benazir Bhutto and Shirin Ebadi, it is important to analyze their values and the way they influenced others on different levels. While it is necessary for one person to use all existing possibilities to share a message with a community, another may gain followers by simply performing a task. Some people choose to plan the entire strategy and give directions to their teams on how to act. Others delegate most of the work to subordinates, believing that different parts of the process should be run by professionals in their fields. While there are many leadership styles discussed nowadays, the analysis allows us to classify them as directive and laissez-faire for Bhutto and Ebadi correspondingly.

Leadership Styles

One of the ways to manage an organization is to apply a method called directive leadership. It is classified as behavior that is based on providing authority for a group of people when working on a project (Jensen, 2017). Usually, a leader takes over the entire process, from its planning to the implementation phase. The typical approach of the directive leadership style includes top-down directions. The literature suggests that such type of central planning negatively affects employee involvement, as they are turned down by the inability to offer their ideas and make any significant input (Jensen, 2017). However, this is usually the type of leadership that is used by government officials to perform their duties and to implement reforms and initiatives.

The way of how Benazir Bhutto used to influence her community is primarily through giving orders. As a prime minister, she used the administrative resource to implement her ideas into life. For example, one of her main concerns was to improve the quality of life for women in Pakistan. Bhutto developed a series of strategies that helped to achieve this goal. One of her achievements was the foundation of women police stations (Mahezar, Baloch, & Mahezar, 2015).

Other organizations she created included courts and banks that supported female development. At the same time, Bhutto was a Muslim, and she was determined to show the world that her religion does not prevent women from being successful. She had to stand against the stereotypes existing in the rest of the world regarding this matter, which made the task more difficult.

Nevertheless, the dedication of Benazir Bhutto to democratic values prevented her from becoming an authoritarian leader. On the contrary, she chose the path characterized as “the course of actions based on compromises and cooperation” (Azeem, Ali, Hassan, & Ahmad, 2018, p. 176). For instance, during her first term as a prime minister, Bhutto had to delegate the decision making to military structures regarding foreign policy. At the same time, she concentrated on internal issues, offering more freedom to the media sector, and releasing political prisoners of the former regime. She aimed to balance the existing forces with the democratic path she was favoring.

Shirin Ebadi was a completely different kind of leader since she lacked the formal power for most of her career. Moreover, she never wanted to be perceived as such, especially in the political sense (Russel, 2017). Her idea of leadership was not to show people the way they should go, but rather to help those left behind. The style of Ebadi is best described as laissez-faire, as she did not want to take the responsibility of guiding members of her community.

This type of leadership is characterized by followers having a significant role in decision-making (Humborstad & Giessner, 2018). Although it may be considered not as effective as the directive style, laissez-faire allows employees to feeling valued and engaging in work more actively.

The episode with Shirin Ebadi forced to leave her position as a judge shows how little was her desire to have the formal power. Instead of accepting the job of a court secretary, she went on to share her ideas with the help of publications.

Being a part of the Iranian judicial system could have given Ebadi certain benefits. Nevertheless, she decided to put all her efforts into making little steps to transform her country. She always saw herself as a simple attorney, and her primary force was access to media (Luscombe, 2016). She relied heavily on her colleagues in the NGO’s that she had created, and their fate always used to be one of her primary concerns. That was precisely the attitude that gave Ebadi so many followers in Iran and around the world and eventually led her to winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Impact on the Organization

When discussing the influence of individual leaders on such a complex structure as a government or a judicial system, it is always difficult to determine their significance. Nowadays, the countries have become so developed that it is nearly impossible for a single person to make visible changes for the entire community that would be lasting. It is especially challenging in those countries, where political instability prevents reforms and initiatives from being followed under changing regimes. The last factor is especially true for the cases of Benazir Bhutto and Shirin Ebadi. As long as Pakistan and Iran remain the countries with authoritarian rule, high level of corruption and social injustice, the work of these two leaders cannot be called successful.

For example, the judicial system of Iran did not suffer any changes as a result of Ebadi’s leadership. Apart from becoming the first female judge in Iran, she did not influence the entire sector, as this did not become a common practice. Firstly, she did not spend much time in that position to make any reforms. Secondly, her activism on defending human rights was noticed internationally, but it did not make the Iranian government change anything.

Partially, it happened because of the officials being a part of the criminal schemes existing in the country. The fact that Ebadi still receives threats while being in exile only supports the idea that the current government is not interested in developing a fair judicial system that would defend human rights.

Among the negative effects that Ebadi’s work had on Iran was seen in the sphere of international relations. The Western world mainly did not favor the nuclear program of the state, yet the reports from human rights activists on various violations created the ground for democratic countries to interfere. For instance, Iran used to be under sanctions for decades, which led to a series of adverse effects for a society like people getting poorer. As the political situation has changed in recent years, it allowed Western countries to re-think their relations with Iran. As a result, the sanctions have been lifted, which was supported by Ebadi (Luscombe, 2016). However, there have not been any significant changes regarding human rights and their treatment in courts.

Benazir Bhutto may be perceived as more successful regarding the matter of impact. She managed to improve the perception of Pakistan in the international arena. Besides, her becoming a prime minister in a Muslim state was already a significant change for the government. As a head of PPP, she was such a charismatic and successful leader that it twice brought victory to the party on elections.

Nevertheless, Bhutto’s government cannot be called highly efficient. She tried to defend in front of the rest of the world the right of Pakistan to keep its nuclear weapons for defense from India, but it did not satisfy the USA (Mahezar et al., 2015). As a result, the government was left without American financial aid. She also did not solve the issue of inflation and poverty across the nation. Her government was twice dismissed after being accused of corruption.

However, the events following her death showed just how significant Benazir Bhutto used to be as a leader. For instance, the People’s Party of Pakistan has currently lost its reputation and popularity, as its leaders are passive and receive little respect from citizens (Haider & Ali, 2018). The heritage of Benazir Bhutto remains solely in her family members retaining the power in the country, yet her democratic course seems to be abandoned.

Aspects of Culture and Ethics

The ethical code of any organization starts from a combination of beliefs shared by its administration. When analyzing what kind of leaders were Benazir Bhutto ad Shirin Ebadi, it is essential to determine what values they had. The next step is to compare how they matched with the principles of activities performed by organizations led by them. It is important that employees or team members follow the same culture of ethics and makes uniform moral decisions.

The example of Benazir Bhutto is rather controversial in this dimension. She was the target of high expectations from the start, being the daughter of an influential politician and determined to become the party’s leader. Bhutto was influenced by her experience abroad, as she received education in some of the best universities in the world. Oxford could have been the place where she became dedicated to the ideals of democracy and social justice.

However, when Benazir Bhutto became the prime minister of Pakistan, her decisions were not always matching the democratic principles. For example, she did not agree to stop the nuclear program in the country despite the negative reaction from the West. Moreover, her party was twice accused of corruption, which is unacceptable in such democratic areas and the European Union, the U.S., and other states. Of course, the political competition was partially the reason for that decision. Nevertheless, some of the actions of Benazir Bhutto made it easy to believe that the PPP is corrupted. For instance, her husband used to occupy high positions in the government during her rule while he was not necessarily specialized in some of the spheres.

Probably, the strongest value of Benazir Bhutto was her dedication to social justice for women. She argued that she could lead the country despite many people not wanting a female in the government. Bhutto managed to win the elections while being pregnant, which required much effort as she had to work about fifteen hours a day during the campaign (Mahezar et al., 2015). This victory supported the culture of empowerment among women in Pakistan for the whole period of Bhutto’s rule.

It is difficult to evaluate the culture and organizational ethics developed under the leadership of Shirin Ebadi as her influence was mainly focused on her colleagues. After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, it became rather challenging for activists to defend human rights. It took much courage from Ebadi and her team to oppose the government and to defend the ideals of social justice despite threats and imprisonment. Notably, Ebadi has chosen her work as an activist over her family, as she did not abandon it even after the complaint from her husband. The dedication of her team members to their ethical standards is also visible form their choices, as some of them are still imprisoned for their NGO service.

Unfortunately, Iran is not a place where activists such as Shirin Ebadi can make a significant difference. Even though the government has changed, the possibility of real reforms is vague. The books and other publications of Ebadi let the world know what kind of injustice people face in Iran. However, it is not enough for influencing the situation within the country. Individuals are threatened by the government, and there is little to no possibility to unite in groups that share the same culture of ethics. The international pressure on Iran does not seem to affect the government, which results in ordinary people suffering from such actions.

Those individuals, who share democratic values like Shirin Ebadi, are forced to either hide and conform to the existing culture, or to be threatened for their beliefs. The third way is to flee the country, which leaves even fewer chances for reforms in the nearest future.


Leadership can be performed in different styles, depending on the situation and values shared by an individual. Benazir Bhutto showed herself as a directive leader, using her power as the prime minister and the head of the party to introduce reforms in Pakistan. Shirin Ebadi chose to delegate the decision-making processes to her team members, adopting the laissez-faire style. Both women have shown themselves as hardworking and dedicated to transforming their societies and bringing democracy to their countries. Even though their success was not lasting, they have created a precedent for other females in Muslim countries, showing that gender should not be an obstacle to becoming a leader.


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Ebadi, S. (2016). Until we are free: My fight for human rights in Iran. New York, NY: Random House.

Haider, S. K., & Ali, S. S. (2018). Impact of Benazir Bhutto death on performance of PPP and electoral politics of Pakistan 2008-2013. Pakistan Vision, 19(1), 136-163.

Humborstad, S. I. W., & Giessner, S. R. (2018). The thin line between empowering and laissez-faire leadership: An expectancy-match perspective. Journal of Management, 44(2), 757-783. Web.

Ilknur, M. (2016). Benazir Bhutto – Freedom and chaos in her life. In S. S. Ercetin (Ed.), Women leaders in chaotic environments: Examinations of leadership using complexity theory (pp. 99-108). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG.

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Luscombe, B. (2016). Shirin Ebadi. Time, 187(11), 76.

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Michaelsen, M. (2018). Exit and voice in a digital age: Iran’s exiled activists and the authoritarian state. Globalizations, 15(2), 248-264. Web.

Russel, P. (2017). Reluctant leaders: Dr Shirin Ebadi. Training Journal. Web.

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