Inspirations that last.
We each inspire other people, often without knowing that we are doing so. This humbling fact underscores the sacred responsibility of leaders, in particular, to be mindful of what they write, say, and do.
“Inspiration,” of course, does not only come from people. Ideas, principles of life, events, situations, places, and things also inspire. The focus of this paper is on inspirations that come from leaders. These are those life-changing experiences where one or more persons readily, intuitively, and/or deeply identify with, or seek to emulate the leader’s way of life, aspiration, achievement, or guiding principle.
The 20th century produced several leaders: some revered, and others despised. Some leaders attracted huge international followings; others came and went with little or nothing to celebrate for their tenures or accomplishments. Like leaders, some inspirations endure; others are transient. Some are territorial; others transcend space and culture, and even become institutionalized as global icons, monuments, artifacts, or commemorative documents (biographies, memoirs, maxims, etc.).
This paper overviews selected inspirations that have transcended place and culture, and that therefore seem destined to endure. The paper is targeted particularly at today’s leaders and those who are aspiring to lead institutions, organizations, communities, and national societies. Drawing upon the lives and works of five 20th century iconic leaders, the paper presents a repertoire of tools that readers will find essential for successful leadership and enduring influence.
Iconic Leaders and Influencers
Cursory review of the lives of five 20th century leaders highlights key principles, ideals, values, and personal qualities that distinguish great influencers, attract worldwide followings, and make them truly iconic, even immortal. Selected leaders include Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pope John Paul II is widely regarded as one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century. Popularly known as “John Paul the Great,” he went beyond the traditions of his ecclesiastical office (the Papacy) to do what he thought was right: ending Communist rule in Poland and Eastern Europe, and improving the Catholic Church’s relations with other religious sects. These and numerous other humanitarian efforts made Pope John Paul II virtually a living “saint” in the eyes of the world. Such was his moral rectitude that his canonization process started immediately after his death; Waiving the traditional five-year waiting period, Pope John Paul II was proclaimed Venerable in 2009 by his successor, beatified in 2011, and is about to be canonized at the time of this writing (April 2014).
Mother Teresa, also known as the “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta,” is widely admired for her charitable works, including personal poverty; wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor; homes and hospices for people with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and leprosy; soup kitchens; dispensaries; mobile clinics; orphanages; schools; and counseling.
Nelson Mandela stood for racial equality, led a sustained campaign against the apartheid government of South Africa; and went to jail for his beliefs. On release from prison, Mandela was elected President, in which position he focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid and institutionalized racism; ending poverty and inequality, and fostering reconciliation between the races.
Mahatma Gandhi, known both as “high-souled” and “venerable,” led India to Independence and inspired national and international movements for civil rights and freedom across the world; easing poverty; expanding women’s rights; ending untouchability; building religious and ethnic amity. Gandhi is best known for practicing nonviolence and truth in all situations.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was the leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, dedicating his life and work to combating racial inequality and the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience.
From the review of the lives and works of these global inspirations emerge personal and “ideological” factors that make for enduring influence.
Selflessness: Willingness to make personal sacrifice. Renunciation of profit, honor, material gain, or personal benefits.
Commitment: Total dedication. Goal in the pursuit of which the leader is prepared to live or die.
Consistency: Every aspect of the leader’s life and work expresses the same ideals and convictions.
Authenticity: Genuineness. Straightforwardness. Sincerity. Deeply convincing to others.
Integrity: Actions correspond to words. Behavior and character exemplify public utterances. Walk the talk.
Role Model: Exemplifies values with which the vast majority of people intuitively and deeply resonate or to which they aspire. Exudes humanity’s highest ideals.
Truth: Aligns with the way we view the world. Perceived as the best explanation of the human condition.
Visionary: Widely regarded as the best way forward for the human condition.
Moral Compulsion: Publicly and privately affirmed as an urgent and necessary course of action.
Intuitive Resonance. Aligns with our innermost nature and with the way we view the world.
Personal Significance: Brings out the best in people. Attachment perceived as giving meaning and significance to one’s life.
Timelessness: Perceived as an enduring value.
Transcending: Compatible with, and found in most cultures, religions, and belief systems.
Universal Applicability: Relevant and pertinent across situations and circumstances.
Engages the Heads and Hearts of People: Emotionally stirring. Resonates with what people deeply know and feel to be true and right.
Lessons for Today’s Bona Fide and Aspiring Leaders
Two facts deserve special notice about Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The first is their ordinary beginnings. The second is their creativity.
Nothing in their parental background or upbringing gave indications that Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. would become global icons in their lifetime. But, they did. These leaders rose to fame and “stardom” not by reason of inherited, elected, or appointed positions they occupied; nor by force, propaganda, intimidation, or cajolement; but by consistently living and exuding values that deeply or compellingly attract other people to them.
Booker T. Washington defined “creativity” as doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not “rocket scientists,” by any stretch of the imagination. By their total and unalloyed commitment to mundane, everyday human concerns, they awakened in people qualities we all have; but, often, do not seem to realize that we have those abilities. By the things they said and did, and by the way they lived, worked, and related with other people, they stirred and brought out the best in people everywhere.
In summary: Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were inspirations, and they were followed by millions of people around the world not because of who they were, but because they presented humanity with everyday economic, social, and political challenges – causes – the pursuit of which gives meaning and significance to people’s lives.