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Greta the Great?

Studying leadership is a fascinating adventure. At first glance, one tends focus on historical leaders like Ghandi, the Dali Lama, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela to name but a few who have impacted the world in some important fact. Certainly these people are considered leaders by most people in today's world. But 16 year old, Swedish #GretaThunberg? Isn't she too young? Didn't she just get swept up by social media and thrust into the spotlight? Wasn't she just lucky, being the right place at the right time? Or is there more to it.

There are dozens of young leaders like Greta passionately working for causes that are both personal adventures and usually beneficial to society in some collective way. Examples include Sarika Cullis-Suzuki, daughter of world renowned environmentalist David Suzuki, Helena Gualinga, from the Ecuadorian Amazon, and Lamboginny, an outspoken musician from Nigeria. But none have captured the attention of the world like Greta. Why is that?

Some might point to the wider reach mass communications like social media now providing a faster global reach yet all these young leaders, many might suggest, have just as equal access to these worldwide mediums to connect. To gain this dedicated following clearly requires more that. If we define leadership in its simplist terms, it can be described as one who is able to voluntarily lead others towards the completion of a goal. Without willing followers, one can hardly be a successful leader mobilizing others. For Greta, she clearly has many willingly following in pursuit towards her goal and vision.

Let's take a look at a few common characteristics of successful leaders and how Greta seems to make these work for her. One characteristic is authenticity which can often be represented by personal sacrifice. In Greta's case, protesting in front of the Swedish Parliament alone starting in August 2018 was a strong image of personal sacrifice representing that authenticity in a visual story easily understood and shared.

Effective leaders have clear visions that are meant to inspire hope and Greta's vision focuses on a rather clear and simple goal. She wants countries and political leaders to 'unite behind the science' as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations, dedicated to providing the world with an objective, scientific view of climate change, its natural, political and economic impacts and risks, and possible response options (Wikipedia). She isn't imposing her view on others but emphasizing a shared vision of the future described in detail by the IPCC. Putting our collective future into the spotlight inspires a sense of optimism for many used to reading daily headlines of various climate emergencies while appealing to our shared aspirations for a future better than what we have now or at least no worse.

Finally, her focus day in and day out, especially in light of the sometimes increasing hostility as the opposition grows along with her fame is a strength few of us have. By modeling the way for others, Greta enables others to act. This is evident by the growing protests and climate strikes happening on a regular basis now. What does she have that others don't? Maybe it's her Asperger’s which her family sees as a blessing. "She is someone who strips away social distractions and focuses with black-and-white clarity on the issues." Where many adults or other leaders would likely have given up along the way, Greta continues to focus on her message and finding new ways to engage with her audiences. Certainly Asperger's isn't a fundamental characteristic of leadership but maybe the focus that it enables is an interesting advantage for some. What some might call a disability can be a valued strength in the right circumstances. Either way, focus is an essential characteristic of leadership.

Regardless of your political orientation and whether you believe Greta is a contributing to a positive message of change or not, it's difficult to argue that she hasn't impacted the motivation of millions of others around the world. I write this hoping all young people will become as great as Greta in the various leadership roles each may play in their careers, families and communities throughout their life. We can all learn to be better leaders as exemplified by Greta's key characteristics of leadership. For many of us, it will take many years beyond 16 to walk the talk of leadership in such a captivating and spirited way as Greta has managed.


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