Learning About Leadership From A Sixteen Year Old

Learning About Leadership From A Sixteen Year Old

Global Climate Strike in Vancouver, BC – September 2019

One simple definition of a leader is “anyone who has a significant influence on the actions of others.” By that simple definition, few people in recent memory have had more direct impact on getting others to act then sixteen year old Greta Thunberg from Sweden who inspired millions of people to participate in likely the largest global “strike” in history. Regardless of whether you agree with her, we need to act NOW on climate change. I happen to agree wholeheartedly! As students of leadership, I thought we might look at what we can learn from her obvious impact. I even about wrote a poem my own reaction to Greta and all the young people speaking up around the world.

Greta’s Story

For those of you not familiar with her story, Greta Thunberg’s journey began when she became deeply concerned about both climate change as well as the state of the Earth’s environment and started skipping school once a week and “striking” outside the Swedish Parliament.

The climate strikes eventually spread across the globe, with millions of people participating including myself in my home city. In the week of the strikes, Greta met with global leaders and even spoke before the US Congress and the United Nations General Assembly, challenging world leaders, asking “How dare you rob my childhood and future?” by not taking real action on the environment.

So, what can we learn from Greta’s example?

Be Authentic

The first leadership lesson from Greta Thunberg is her authenticity. When people watch her speak, they see the message is coming from the heart. While some skeptics have accused her of being a “pawn” in some larger game, the vast majority of people see her for what she is: an earnest young woman deeply troubled about her future and the future of her generation. Authenticity matters deeply when it comes to leadership so whatever you do, please do it better from inside.

Leaders Sacrifice First

We follow leaders who demonstrate sacrifice themselves. Martin Luther King Jr. lived with constant threats on his life and his family. Gandhi was arrested numerous times. The CEO of Delta Airlines had no pay for a year while his company went through a challenging time. Greta is sacrificing a time in her life when most young people can simply enjoy life. She is sacrificing at the risk of ridicule, and her mother gave up her career as an opera singer to support Greta’s desire that she limit her carbon footprint by not flying on airplanes. She even sailed across the Atlantic in rough waters to come to the USA instead of flying, which we all know was no picnic. If you aren’t willing to sacrifice, you sure can’t ask others to do so.

Challenge the Status Quo

Real leaders challenge the status quo, they run against the grain. If you really want to be a leader, you’d better be willing to buck the trend. Much of great leadership is a willingness to speak the truth. While the world’s leaders have done endless commissioning of reports, declared climate emergencies, and made hollow commitments to save the ocean, and species, Greta spoke the truth that little REAL action is happening. Almost every leader who truly has influence is willing to tell the Emperor they have no clothes.

Believe You Can Have Influence

In my book Stepping Up, I researched stories of people who had stepped up to make a big difference. One of the key factors was that they were “naïve” enough to think they could change things. Imagine a sixteen year old believing that “striking” from school once per week and sitting on the steps of the Swedish Parliament would lead to change? I imagine how many people mocked her and told her to go back to school! Imagine how many people thought “poor little girl,” no one will even notice. Instead she believed she “mattered” and that by stepping up she could influence. Look what happened. Are you acting like you can truly change things?

Empower Others to Act and Be Humble

Finally, great leaders are always aware that their ultimate act of leadership is to empower others. Greta Thunberg is a role models that does not play the hero. Instead she calls on others to follow. When she talked to world leaders like the US Congress and they were admiring her courage she said: “Don’t listen to me, I am just a schoolgirl. Listen to the scientists!” If you want the credit, you probably won’t accomplish much as a leader. Greta may get lots of credit, but she has role modeled a desire to empower others to act. How about you?

Communicate from the Heart & Talk Straight

This is what Greta Thunberg did at her TEDx talk

Here is a recent poem that I wrote.

The Children Speak by Dr. John Izzo

The children speak

But we do not listen

They ask us to be mindful

but we do not mind them

We seem to attend

But we have not heard

They come into the halls

of power and money

with sure voices of concern

We admire their courage

Praise their intentions

Then pat them on the head

To say we know better

They speak a language

long lost on us

of obvious answers

to complex questions

asking what good is school

when no one seems to learn

of what use is hope

when no one ever acts

They see our hypocrisy

Our convenient excuses

How disabled we are

In the care for their future

And ask us to step up before we are done

Or give up the reigns to ones yet to come

Maybe it is time for us to sit

To be told to be quiet

Time for us to go to school

To admit we failed the course

Going back to our child to ask again

If perhaps, we might have something to learn

The children speak

It is time to listen

They ask us to be mindful

And mind them we must

It’s time to attend

And show we have heard


Dr. John Izzo has spoken to over one million people, advised over 500 companies, authored nine best-selling books, and helped some of the world's most admired companies. He has been a pioneer in creating successful businesses and emerging work trends for over twenty-five years.

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