What makes somebody a leader? Is it wealth and influence? The ability to win people’s votes? Or is it something different? A willingness to go where others won’t go and do what others won’t do?
To me, a leader is somebody who, whatever their background and status, steps up to overcome obstacles and change the world around them – inspiring others to do the same.
It’s somebody like Anwari Khan, who lives with her children next to the Govandi dump in Mumbai, one of the biggest landfills in the world. A self-taught leader who never learned to read and write, she heads a network of hundreds of women, and runs training courses for the police on responding to domestic violence.
Or Yang Xin, who organised the first ever expedition from the source to the mouth of the Yangtze river inChina– a journey of almost 4000 kilometres. It took 170 days and ten of his fellow explorers died on the journey. 25 years on, Yang Xin runs an environmental NGO dedicated to protecting one of the planet’s most precious ecosystems – the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. The rivers that start there support the lives of almost two billion people across southAsia.
Or Taddy Blecher, who quit his job as one ofSouth Africa’s highest paid actuaries to set up a low-cost university for people from disadvantaged families. Taddy persuaded a bank to lend him an abandoned building, recruited volunteers fromJohannesburg’s business community to teach classes, stocked the library with out-of-print textbooks donated by publishers, and equipped the classrooms with computers gifted by software companies. For the first few months, before the computers arrived, he photocopied images of keyboards and taught the students to touch-type on sheets of paper.
Through my work with Leaders’ Quest over the last 12 years I’ve met many unconventional leaders like Anwari, Yang Xin and Taddy.
I decided to write a book (Invisible Giants: changing the world one step at a time) about some of them, not because they are inherently more virtuous than high profile leaders who strive to contribute to a happier, healthier world, but because their stories are rarely told and because they too have a vital role to play in creating a brighter future.
They’ve made me realise that, despite all the challenges we face, we have reason to be optimistic. The potential of human beings to grow, create and overcome adversity is infinite.
But there’s also another side to the story. The choices we make can easily be destructive, rather than constructive. I wrote Invisible Giants because I wanted to explore some of the tough questions we all face about values, purpose, and the impact we have on those around us.
Of course we each need to answer these questions for ourselves.
Perhaps William, a young white South African, who, at the age of seventeen, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for armed robbery, summed up the challenge we each face best. I first met William on a visit to Johannesburg Maximum Security Prison with Khulisa, an organisation that helps young offenders turn their lives around. Thanks to Khulisa and his own resilience, William escaped the cycle of drugs, gangs and crime, and earned early release after just eight years. His positive leadership role within the prison was key to his turnaround and, crucially, he grew to recognise and take responsibility for the impact of his actions.
Shortly after his release, William said to me: “I started to think about what makes us human and how we’re all connected. I thought about it like I was a spider in the middle of a web, joined up to all the people in my life as well as lots I’d never even met, and with every one of them I seemed to be a negative force. Facing up to that was hard. I thought about finding myself and then I thought: does anyone ever really do that? I decided it was more a case of working out who I wanted to be and becoming that person.”
We all, at least superficially, understand that we live in a complex, interconnected world, but how many of us really have the courage to face up to what that means for the choices we make and the way that we live?
The Indian edition of Invisible Giants was launched in Mumbai on 27 November and in Delhi on 28 November. More details at https://www.invisible-giants.com/ and