“Those who lead inspire us … Whether they are individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to but because we want to.” − Simon Sinek
I started writing this blog while bearing witness to the latest wave of political protests in Bangkok, Thailand. On Sunday, December 22, an estimated four to six million Thai citizens participated in simultaneous mass protests throughout the city – an enormous number, given Bangkok’s total population of nine million. The protesters were demanding the immediate resignation of caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, a successful business tycoon who served as prime minister from 2001 until he was deposed in a coup d’état in 2006. Thaksin is reportedly in Dubai where he has lived in exile after he fled Thailand just before he was to serve his two-year jail term for his conviction of abuse of power and economic crimes. The protests were against the government’s recent attempts to issue amnesty to Thaksin, thereby allowing him to return to Thailand scot-free.
Abuse of power and unbalanced justice are still very much alive in countries around the world. But, to change history, it takes only one person who has the courage to publicly express a hopeful vision against injustice. These individuals are often catapulted into leadership roles due to their ideas which resonate with the masses. Two examples of visionary leadership are Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.
There are three aspects of Nelson Mandela’s life that were instrumental in him achieving his lifelong goals of freeing South Africa of apartheid rule and restoring the country to African (indigenous) rule. First, he had a vision that guided him throughout ”the struggle.” Second, he had the willingness to take risks, which set him apart from other freedom fighters. Third, his ability to role-model leadership caused others to support him and join the struggle with the African National Congress (ANC) to ultimately create a nonracial democratic South Africa. Mandela’s visionary leadership included knowing precisely when and how to transition through his roles as warrior, martyr, diplomat and statesman. He demonstrated his mastery of the need for leadership succession in building a sustainable organization when he stepped aside in 1999 to pave the way for Thabo Mbeki’s accession to the presidency of the ANC and the Republic of South Africa.
Fifty years ago, at a defining moment of the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. shared with the world his vision for an end to racism in America when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Note that he declared “I have a dream,” neither “I have a plan” nor “I have a strategy.” By articulating a shared dream—not a plan, not a strategy—he empowered his fellow Americans to participate in a national dialogue as to how to achieve that vision.
I admire these two charismatic yet humble men because they reflect excellence in leadership by courageously making a vision concrete that also disrupted the status quo. As the President of Woodbury University, one of our goals is to educate tomorrow’s leaders with dynamic skills and values for the demanding challenges ahead. If our students find themselves in a Mandela or King situation in politics, industry, or wherever their individual paths may go, they will be strengthened with wisdom, fortitude and courage to serve as visionary leaders.
Let me end by reiterating a lesson I first learned from my parents. Leadership is like public service; they are both a public trust. Public leaders are stewards of the public trust. Senior leaders of organizations are stewards of their stakeholders’ trust. Leaders continue to enjoy that trust to the extent that they honor their commitments and demonstrate through their personal actions their competence and trustworthiness. Developing future leaders and planning for their succession does not demonstrate weakness or lack of commitment, but rather their willingness to subordinate their own personal interests to the broader interests of the organization and ensure the organization’s sustainability.
Who are other leaders who might serve as effective role models for the political leaders in your country?