One of the leadership questions I often hear is this: how can I be a leader when I’m so young?
I can’t think of a better example to share than this month’s leadership profile Malala Yousafzai.
I first heard of Malala when it was reported the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley had attempted to assassinate the then 15 year-old girl on her way home from school, shooting her in the face at point blank range in October, 2012. Her only “crime” was standing up and speaking out for the education rights of girls in the region. After an amazing recovery in Birmingham, England, Malala slowly but surely redoubled her efforts to speak out on behalf of education equality. Her book I Am Malala was released one year after her assassination attempt and she was the youngest person ever to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Malala’s media story has yet to peak, but I believe there are several takeaways from a leadership front as well, particularly for young leaders. Here they are:
If there’s one thing young leaders (or any of us) need to hear, it’s this: you are never to unqualified to set a good example. Unfortunately, age can be one of the biggest excuses for not taking initiative when the opportunity arises. Encouraged by her father when she was 11 years old, Malala began writing a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym describing her experience under Taliban occupation. But it wasn’t because she was the most qualified. She was simply the only one willing to do it after the 15 year-old who had been selected backed out at the last minute.
Taking initiative isn’t about position or authority or attempting to make huge, sweeping changes. It’s about doing what we can in the circumstances we’re in.
If you’re advocating for any kind of change at all, you WILL face opposition at some point. This was certainly the case with Malala. Because she did so well with her BBC blog, additional media opportunities came her way. Eventually, the Taliban figured out who she was an issued threats against her and her family.
When opposition comes, it can often seem perfectly reasonable to quit. Many leaders do. Some are justified, but for the ones who stick with it, opposition is essentially a gut check. How much are they willing to put on the line? How important is the vision they are trying to accomplish? What is it worth?
For Malala, opposition simply added fuel to her efforts. The Taliban threats made it obvious she was making a difference. As Dale Carnegie says, criticism is often a disguised compliment. You don’t get it unless you are doing something noteworthy.
Serve Your Purpose
One of the questions author Mark Miller asks is this: are you a serving leader or a self-serving leader? In other words, are you in it for others or only yourself? I’ll admit this is always a tough question for me because I have so many personal and professional goals. Malala was the same way. Education was very personal for her and she worked extremely hard to win top honors as a child. But through her work as an education advocate, it became clear to her that education shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be a universal right. Her efforts (and circumstances) led to the passage of Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill.
There comes a time when serving our purpose dwarfs the importance of self-promotion. To press that point, I’d like to share Malala’s own thoughts in this brief clip from her recent interview with Jon Stewart. When it became apparent Malala was literally fighting for everyone – even the very people who had tried to kill her – it left me just as speechless as it did Stewart.
You don’t need to be old enough or important enough to make a difference. Malala didn’t set out to become a revolutionary. She simply did the next right thing and didn’t give up, despite the pressure. You and I can do this too, right where we stand. Let’s join in.
Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader. Receive his latest updates by subscribing to his website or following him on Twitter.