People have been talking about developing leaders for decades, and nowadays leaders hip training programmes and resources are available in abundance. When we think of great leaders, revered names such as Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr. immediately come to mind. Yet these leaders never attended any modern-day leadership training programme but they transformed their worlds and continue to inspire generations. So what was their secret?
All these leaders started out as unlikely candidates for transformational leadership. As a young man Mahatma Gandhi was painfully shy. He was a trained lawyer but his law practice failed because he lacked self-confidence and had great difficulty speaking in public. He was unable to cross-examine witnesses or argue cases in court.
Martin Luther King Jnr’ was a beer drinking, pool playing, unmotivated college student who floated through his first two years in college but was popular, especially with his female classmates. Mother Teresa was an insignificant 12-year-old girl, whose father died when she was only eight, leaving her to be brought up by a single mother who was by no means wealthy. Nelson Mandela ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage and worked as a night watchman while completing his bachelor’s degree by correspondence.
So what transformed these ordinary people into extraordinary agents of change? They all experienced a defining moment that connected them with a sense of purpose. They developed a sense that they were fulfilling a calling, and became driven by powerful convictions and values.
As an immigrant in South Africa, Gandhi encountered incidents of discrimination that caused him to question his place in society and the Indian people’s standing in the British Empire. He decided he would no longer accept injustice but would defend his dignity as a man and as an Indian. His involvement in the struggle to secure rights for the Indian community in South Africa shaped his philosophy of Satyagraha, or non violent protest, and eventually brought him to the forefront of the independence movement in India, earning him the status of Father of the Nation.
Mother Teresa felt called to a religious life at the age of 12, and entered a convent at age 18. Eighteen years later she experienced a further calling when she heard Christ beckon her to the slums of Calcutta to show His love to the sick and dying, and the poorest of the poor.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr. made his choice to enter Christian ministry to satisfy what he described as, “an inner urge to serve humanity” with sermons that were “a respectful force for ideas, even social protest.” Everything King did rose out of his calling as a minister. In a sermon he stated:
“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher. This is my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. All that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.”
Nelson Mandela was so dearly loved and admired, he could easily have clung to power following his release from 27 years of incarceration. Yet he relinquished the presidency after one five-year term. His fight hadn’t been for a position. His fight had been about principles.
As Mandela said during a rally when he was freed in 1990, “In conclusion I wish to quote my own words during my trial in 1964. They are true today as they were then: I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Think about a leader who has had an impact on your life. A parent who made sacrifices so you could go to school, and disciplined your poor choices so you wouldn’t go astray. A teacher who made a difficult topic interesting and easier to understand, or saw potential in you and pushed you to do your best. Or the boss who took a chance on you, trusting you to handle your first big project, make a special presentation, attend a key meeting or deal with an important client. A mentor who came alongside when you were discouraged, or gave you key pointers that led to your success. The pastor who modelled wisdom and compassion and showed you how to put your faith into practice. The local leader whose tireless efforts brought much needed development to your community.
Leaders who make a real difference in our lives are not motivated by power or positions. They are motivated by principles. Their aim is to help humanity. They are dedicated to a greater cause.
If you want to take your leadership to the next level, aim to help other people. Aim to live with purpose.
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