22 Oct Learning About Leadership From A Sixteen Year Old
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.
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?
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