Most people when considering the subject of leadership tend to look to the examples of some CEOs such as Steve Jobs of Apple or Jack Welch of GE, or great national leaders such as Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, who built one of the wealthiest nations in the world on a small rock just south of the Malaysian mainland, or Winston Churchill who lead Britain during the Second World War.

Author: Hamilton83; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Hamilton83; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I have long believed that Steve Jobs was a great gadget designer who took on mythical leadership status on his death, but who had always really been an erratic, despotic and egomaniacal CEO. (see “Are Fanatics or Fools the problem” posted April 23, 2012), and that Jack Welch had great success at GE, but gained fame more as a published celebrity than as a great leader.

Author: matt buchanan; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: matt buchanan; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Lee Kwan Yew had a dream about what Singapore could become and was able to get the people of Singapore to believe in that dream as being their own, but drove his people through edicts, and control of every element of the people’s lives, including at one point dictating the allowable length of their hair, and Winston Churchill had circumstances dictate his situation when Germany declared war in 1939.

Whilst I do admire many elements of what all these men achieved, when it comes to defining true leadership, I prefer the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French Pilot and writer (1900-1944) who said “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”.

That is why I believe that to find true leadership, one has to look beyond most CEOs and Presidents, to people who because of their vision, commitment and courage, even in the face of death, were able to build a following who were also prepared to risk everything to achieve the dream that their leader had presented.

Here is my nomination for the “Great Leadership Award” during my own lifetime.

Malala Yousafzai … A leader at 14 years old

At the age of 11 Malala started writing a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley, and about her dream and vision for promoting education for all girls in Pakistan. As she rose to prominence, she began giving press and television interviews, with the NY Times filming a documentary on her life and her mission to ensure all girls had a right to be educated. In October 2012, when she was 14, Taliban gunmen tried to assassinate her while she was returning home on a school bus. She was shot in the head and neck, and after treatment locally, was airlifted to the UK for intensive surgery and rehabilitation. She has now been released from hospital and she has vowed to continue her fight despite the on-going Fatwahs being issued against her.

Author: Carlos Latuff; CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Carlos Latuff; CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

She has been nominated for the International Children’s Peace prize, the National Youth Peace prize, Game-changers 2012, Time Magazine’s person of the year and is the youngest person to be nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. Schools have been named after her. Former First Lady Laura Bush, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and a legion of celebrities such as Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Tina Brown have launched and endorsed a campaign to raise money to provide education for all girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On 15 October 2012, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, launched a petition to the Government of Pakistan in Malala’s name, the main demand being that there be no children left out of school by 2015.

The petition contains three demands:

-We call on Pakistan to agree to a plan to deliver education for every child.
-We call on all countries to outlaw discrimination against girls.
-We call on international organizations to ensure the world’s 61 million out-of-school children are in education by the end of 2015.

John Quincy Adams said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

I believe that by any definition, Malala Yousafzai has exhibited all the true characteristics of leadership that we too readily attribute to people who have been elected to public office (mostly with only a small majority), or those that have fought their way to the top of a corporation, generally measuring them by financial and share price growth.

The dictionary defines Leadership as “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task. The leader may or may not have any formal authority, but traits include situational interaction, function, behavior, power, vision and values, charisma, courage and determination and intelligence, among others.”

I believe that a leader not only has to have a clear vision, but must be able to share that vision with others in a way that will make them willingly follow, and that a leader is someone who steps up in a time of crisis, or to right a human wrong, without any regard for personal safety or personal gain.

In this respect, I believe that Malala Yousafzai has the right to step up beside the likes of National leaders such as Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi, and definitely has as much right as those CEOs that some tend to elevate to Leadership status such as Steve Jobs and Jack Welch.

As was summed up by one of Malala’s classmates “Every girl in Swat is now Malala. We will educate ourselves. We will win. They can’t defeat us.”

For me, that’s a real sign of true leadership.



  1. Thierry says:

    Indeed. Agree. Leaders not pushers. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Well said, Les, Malala is a leader and a great hero.

  3. Richard Ziert says:

    While well done in objective, there seems to be a very large subjective hidden between the lines. Leaders are either independent of authority, or they are that authority. Those true leaders who work for authority and might suggest a better way, that disrupts current culture are seldom if never heard from because they work for a tyrannical culture; those unofficial leaders, standing up on their hind legs, are terminated. What needs be done in either case is to clean our eye glasses and mirrors often.

  4. Moish E. says:

    Correctamoondo! Leaders by nature, not by title. I believe that many people reach leadership positions with honourable intentions in the attaining thereof, but once attaining that position, they lose the plot and push for “an allowable length of hair”. I question whether these people can redirect their ship and steer it like a Little Prince.
    Great blog, Les. Again the timing of it coincides with my circles.

  5. Ashwini says:

    Nicely said..

  6. Pingback: Leadership Lessons from a Young Nobel Peace Prize Nominee — The People Equation - by Jennifer V. Miller

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