I’m often humbled by the amazing people who do so much to make the world a better place. These are everyday people who never intend to take the grand stage but who rise to be symbolic leaders because they have the courage to do what they think needs to be done.
Take Malala Yousafzai. She was just a young girl who dreamed of becoming a doctor. In the United States, where medical schools are now populated by a majority of women, that is an achievable dream. For Malala, however, it was a daily challenge. Her family lives in a part of Pakistan where Islamic extremists do what they can to prevent girls from going to school and seeking professional careers. Malala challenged that view. She became an outspoken advocate for girls’ education, writing a weblog about life for girls in her country.
Her own life changed drastically in October. As she rode home from school with other girls, Taliban gunmen boarded the bus and asked passengers to identify Malala. They shot the teenager in the head and neck, and wounded others nearby.
Amazingly, Malala survived. After emergency care in Pakistan, she was transported to the UK for further care.
Shocked, governments and citizens worldwide protested the attack. The United Nations designated November 10 as Malala Day. In Pakistan, the government announced financial incentives for poor families to send more children to school. An online petition to award her the Nobel Peace Prize has gathered more than 140,000 signatures. The courage of a young girl seeking a career that she thought was the right path for her is having a profound impact on many.
Reports are that Malala understands what happened to her — and also what she means to others. On November 15 her father thanked her worldwide supporters. With the prospect of a lengthy recovery ahead, she nevertheless sees how she has moved the world — with greater possibilities to heal more people than she could heal as a doctor.
Circumstances, talents and perseverance don’t thrust the vast majority of us to such visible positions. Most of us don’t impact the world in such big ways. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.
Today, as I study the lives and careers of universally acknowledged great business and world leaders, I see a common thread among these people. Like Malala, they are unselfishly focused on empowering others toward a better life. One person can be powerful without taking power.
Malala's example certainly makes makes me think of what I can do in my own, first-world life to bring about greater freedom and empowerment. How does she inspire you?
Susan Adams is professor of management and senior director of Bentley’s Center for Women and Business