Richard Freeman gets inspired by young people.
Where does leadership come from?
I often get shouted down for my theory that the era of icons is over. Yet, when I get into any conversation about the inspirational leaders of our age – people still revert quickly to Mandela (but…), Branson (but…), Obama (but…), Merkle (but…).
Usually men, usually establishment, usually over 50, usually had a global profile pre-2009.
The (but…) is the most interest part, and is the most recent addition, reflecting a self-consciousness that unqualified ‘hero-status’ is problematic. That these icons who have dominated the past 30 years of political and business commentary will not be as universally admired as perhaps they once were. Encouragingly, I think it is because we’re all more happily looking for nuance.
And people say, ‘but we have icons now – what about Elon Musk, Justin Trudeau, erm, Stormzy?’
Yeah. But are these unqualified icons? I would argue that we have high-profile figures that speak sense to their public, and that do well from distilling a sense of the maverick in their decision-making.
But in the social media age their critics and detractors are as loud as the gushing puff pieces. With a more diverse set of noises about any world, media or business leader – perhaps the pedestal for placing people upon has become a bit shorter.
It started (and ended?) with Malala
Maybe the exception is Malala Yousafzai. You’ll know this, but Malala turned an attempt on her life by autocratic terrorists when she was 15 into a global movement of female emancipation and resistance to old power political and religious dogma. She’d bagged a Nobel Peace Prize before she was even legally an adult.
Why is Malala a new icon for our age by not being an icon? Because everything she stands for, stands for distributed leadership. It stands for young people not waiting for permission. It stands for young people who have nothing to lose, because the preceding generations – including mine – have already taken it away. If you’ve got nothing to lose, then you don’t owe anything.
If we can draw five leadership principles from Malala’s writing and work, what are they?
- Take a stand
- Find your story
- Be yourself
- Listen well
- Keep your eyes on the prize
For me, Malala’s call to the world’s young people kick-started a new wave of thinking about what we should expect from the world’s under-25s. In Sam Conniff-Allende’s 2018 book ‘Be More Pirate‘ – he calls on adults to get the out of the way of young people so that they can re-write the rules. It is a moral obligation.
In Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms’ ‘New Power‘, also from 2018, they set-out how collective action and mass-participatory stands against clear infrastructural bullshit is shaping a new-look leadership model before our eyes. There are no icons here. And if you’re the type who dismisses the impact of a social hashtag campaign (#MeToo, #IStandWithAhmed etc) with a scoff or an eye-roll – then you’re already done. It’s too late.
Is this flippant?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that what we understand leadership to be is not the same as it was ten years ago. And whatever is emerging is coming from a more mobilised, a more entitled, a more educated, a more energetic and a more equipped youth movement. And it doesn’t care if you approve. It certainly doesn’t need your permission.
15th February 2019
Yesterday was important.
Thousands of children and young adults went on ‘strike’ from school as part of a co-ordinated campaign of direct action against Western political apathy on human-made climate change.
It’s not a strike. A strike is when you withdraw your labour because you feel your employer has abused their responsibilities to you as an employee.
Instead, this is children suspending their entitlement to a free education because they feel their government has abused their responsibilities to them as citizens. This is not about individual livelihoods, this is calling out systemic and prolonged neglect to protect humans (from humans). This feels bigger than a strike, but that language can be useful because it makes it clear to a hierarchy that the contract has already been broken.
This is a new leadership in its messy, emerging, grassroots form.
The Occupy movement failed, as did Black Lives Matter and – going back a bit – the biggest demonstrations in peacetime history (against the 2003 Iraq war) – because they were ideologically driven. Micah White, who co-founded the Occupy movement when he was 29 argues in his book ‘The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution’ that the new activism has to reject the tribal party lines of left and right; has to be pragmatic and has to throw away the pretense that modern democracy cares at all about what people think.
That is why I think this movement is different and why the current crop of children and young people are quickly starting to realise just how much power they have got. And how much the vestiges of old power politics – and pretty much anyone who still believes in a party political system – utterly fail to realise what is happening. The mission – whether on the environment, on housing, on human rights, on Brexit – is first to remind everyone what democracy is. Because we really have forgotten, and for 40 years it has become bloated and tired and self-serving.
In a democracy, we don’t need to revere icons and we don’t blindly follow political dogma and regulatory frameworks simply because heritage demands it. Figures like White and, more recently, Greta Thunberg, will be short-lived heroes but there is no sense that they quest to be icons. Their leadership is distributed and deliberative from the start.
George Monbiot sums the response of many ‘grown-ups’ to this week’s direct action neatly when he says, “to judge by the response to the #climatestrike by politicians and pundits, this country is run by people who think the true hero of the Harry Potter stories is Vernon Dursley.” But in truth, it’s not Harry either. It’s the whole of Dumbledore’s Army.
I know I’m an optimist, but what happened on Friday gave me so much hope that I started to remember what civic leadership can look like.
Do you agree? Disagree?
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To hear from some incredible thinkers on role of young people in society, listen to our interviews below with Sam Conniff-Allende on why young people should be the new pirates; Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson on her role as Chair of the British Youth Council and founder of For Our Future’s Sake and Adam Muirhead, Chair of The Institute for Youth Work on why politicians have got it so wrong.
Richard Freeman is CEO of always possible and Founder of The Possibility Club.