The True Meaning of Leadership - Taught by Our Children
This article originally appeared in Forbes.
Today, while the rest of the world was asleep, children and students in New Zealand woke up, skipped school, and instead flocked together in more than 20 cities around the country to kick off the Global Climate Strike. As morning arose over Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, the same thing happened in more than 2000 cities across 123 countries. It’s estimated that millions of people under 20 years old took to the streets.
This is a historic event. Never before have children and young adults organized a global protest, and rarely has the world seen a protest of this scale and scope.
Today is a day that politicians and corporate leaders should note. Why? Because today a new standard for leadership has emerged.
It all started with a 16-year-old Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg. At the age of 9, she became depressed when she learned that we humans are destroying our planet, as we simultaneously post happy, celebratory pictures on social media. She sensed a collective condition of self-deception.
At 15, she decided to take the only action she felt available to a teenager. She went on strike from school, exclaiming that there’s no point in studying if we have no future. She created a small banner that read “School strike for the climate” and started a one-person protest in front of the Swedish parliament.
At first, she was ridiculed. But she persisted. She deeply understood that it was the only rational thing to do. After six months of standing outside in the Nordic weather, the media started to pay attention.
Greta is now considered by many to be an oracle. She’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and invited to present at multiple global forums, including giving a TED talk. While speaking to an assembled crowd of billionaires, heads of state, and celebrities at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in a matter-of-fact way, she said, “Adults keep saying we owe to the children to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act if as the house was on fire.”
At the United Nations Climate Summit, she asserted, “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You’re not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden, you leave to us children. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”
Fearless, she speaks truth to power. We all know that we’re approaching the irreversible climate events that threaten to make earth uninhabitable. Thousands of scientists have documented the trends, the causes, and the likely outcomes – all beyond any reasonable doubt. Still, governments and companies fail to acknowledge this reality, let alone agree on or implement a solution.
Multiple dictionaries define leadership as “the action of leading a group of people or an organization.” Any sensible understanding of leadership should focus on the greater good, and especially on the greater good for the long term. In this light, the formal leaders of the world – governments, foundations, think tanks, and corporations – have failed. Miserably.
But today something changed.
Greta Thunberg has inspired a whole new generation of emerging leaders; young people all over the world who take responsibility, who organize themselves around caring for our one and only planet, and who advocate for the long-term greater good.
Today is a day for politicians and corporate leaders to take note. If they care about votes or customers, they must put climate change at the top of their agenda. Like Greta and the young people she’s inspired, they must begin to lead for the long-term greater good.