‘I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.’ Rosa Parks
What makes a leader?
Who inspires us to be better than we are?
Who calls to our hearts to step forward and be accounted for?
Who captures our imaginations and our strength, compelling us to strive for a new day?
For a long time I thought leaders were special people who stood out from the crowd. The type of people who gave grand speeches, stirring the troops before they marched into an un-winnable battle. I often imagined being a female version of Captain Kirk bravely urging the Enterprise into the far reaches of the galaxy to do what no ‘man’ had ever done before. You can imagine my excitement when Captain Janeway was introduced to the cast of Star Trek: Voyager! It’s true that many of our great leaders are just like this.
Sometimes they are artists who stir in us the passion to rise up and change the world around us. As a little girl I would lay in bed before sleep came for me, thinking of the day I might write a song like ‘I Am Woman’ by Helen Reddy; a song that I sang religiously every day for months on the way home from school and that generations would continue to sing.
At fifteen, my perspective on leadership shifted to lead singers of pop bands; they were the ones that stood up front and led their band to greatness. The ones that were the first to answer the questions while the members of the group nodded silently behind them. My obsession with good looking boys aside, these lead singers often showed us a side of leadership that is perpetuated in much of our culture. The image of a leader who knows it all and the followers who look to them for guidance and support. Our work cultures are often based on this model of leadership. So are our education structures.
I was convinced that leaders were born to be front runners until one day there was a fire at my school. We were sitting in the science lab that had a wall of windows looking over the school courtyard with a view of the triple story building and the newly built gymnasium and sports complex. Giant red orange flames and black plumes of smoke and billowed out of the roof of the gym and smoke was quickly filling the courtyard. The alarm bell rang across the school intercom. We could already heard the terror and mayhem in the corridor outside. Our teacher went a distinct shade of white and into shock. Not realising what she was doing she walked to the classroom door and locked it, essentially locking us into the room to await our fate. She told us to sit at our tables and not to move. In those days, you pretty much did what your teacher told you. In those days we were rarely taught to think for ourselves. So we sat. Quietly. Waiting.
Until one of my class mates got up and walked up to the teacher and held her hand and told her it would be alright. That he would take care of everything. He walked towards the door and calmly unlocked it, still holding our teachers hand. Then he told us all to stay calm and line up in pairs. We didn’t hesitate. Although we were scared of both the fire and our teacher, we lined up holding onto each other. Our eyes focused on the fire and our friend Wayne. Wayne smiled at us and told us it would be alright. Our teacher nodded along with him. Then he asked us to follow him down the hallway and out into the fresh air and safety of the school garden on the other side of the school. Wayne was not just a hero that day, he was an extraordinary leader. He was prepared to stand up for what he knew was right and prepared to challenge what he knew was wrong. He was prepared to risk himself for the sake of others. He was prepared to stand up and show up.
One of my favourite stories to talk about is the one of Rosa Parks. Rosa was a 42 year old African American who worked as a seamstress. One day in December, 1955, she got on a bus to travel home from work. Initially she sat in the ‘blacks only’ section of the bus, right behind the ‘whites only’ section. When the ‘white section’ filled up the bus driver told the black Americans to move down to the back of the bus to make way for the white people. Rosa refused. She was arrested. But on that day Rosa started a revolution for her community; quest for freedom and equality. She didn’t make a grand speech and rally the troops. She didn’t have a position of power in her own life. She just stood up for what she believed in. In that one single act, she showed up for what she believed was the right thing to do.
Perhaps you have leaders in your life, or leaders from the past who inspire you?
I believe that we are all leaders. We all have the capacity to stand up for what we believe is right, and to act on it. Sometimes it’s a small act, a drop in the ocean. But the consequences of these acts are extraordinary.
Here’s the thing: All of us are game changers.
‘You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.’ Rosa Parks