Leadership stories that inspire

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Leadership stories that inspire


Like me, you have many stories about special times or moments when leadership made all the difference. The best stories are truly inspiring – they show what can be done in difficult circumstances and often by people not much different from ourselves. They encourage us to lift our sights or try for something we thought was out of reach. Or to dig deeper and be less timid or reticent in what we strive for.

In reflecting on my favourite stories, I was a little surprised that none was about people prominent in business or government. There are no politicians, board director or CEOs on my list. It’s not that people in those fields do not lead well. Of course many do. But my favourite leadership moments are peppered with two elements that are not easily associated with the high end of town. Those two elements are amazing courage and strength of purpose.

Some of my stories happened in a moment or over a short period of time. Think of the firefighters who recently saved lives and homes on the Great Ocean Road or the surfer who helped Mick Fanning out of the water after his shark attack. In some instances people are doing their jobs. In others, the person simply weighs in. It is as if they are saying to themselves, ‘This is important. Someone has to do it. I’m in the hot seat. Go.’

Here is a story told to me by a person who was there during the London blitz of World War II. St. Paul’s Cathedral survived with minimal damage, despite it being an obvious landmark and much of the area around it being destroyed. While visiting the Cathedral some years back, I quizzed an elderly guide about his experiences. What had happened? Why was the Cathedral still standing? ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we formed into groups of six or eight and took turns to wait in the Cathedral. When the bombs started to fall we climbed onto the roof and brushed the embers away with brooms.’

Ahh, you might say – these are good stories but where is the leader? You might look for someone in charge, for example, a superintendent in Fire and Rescue carrying a serious burden of responsibility. But there is more to leadership. It is often most effective when shared among people, like those at St. Paul’s, prepared to put their lives on the line in the service of what they feel is worthwhile. Sometimes, leadership is everywhere.

So, in my mind, leadership exists and is most inspiring when it embodies both courage and purpose. This is leadership at its most authentic and powerful. Its focus is sometimes one person who stands out from the crowd but, even then, their leadership overflows, creating a team of people willing to climb on board and share the load.

Here is a case in point.

You might recall an incident in Chile six years ago, capturing news headlines around the world, when 33 coal miners were trapped underground for 69 days, 700 metres below the surface. Their survival was due to teamwork inspired by the leadership of their foreman, Luis Urzua. Early in the long saga, he gathered the miners in a sheltered area, organised their meagre resources and focused everyone on the essential tasks of survival. Everyone participated in the planning and each of the men took on different roles according to his personal strengths. When decisions were needed, everyone had an equal say. When it was over, Urzua explained that his participative approach was important for maintaining morale and staying true to common objectives. He believes this was a key reason why everyone survived.

I have many more stories about people who had a strong conviction or desire to make a difference in service to others. Like the surfer who helped Mick Fanning they acted despite the personal risks or potential for severe losses. In many cases they did have the time for mature consideration but went ahead anyway. The next story is my very favourite. It is about Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, Australian of the Year in 1976.

During World War II ‘Weary’ Dunlop was a medical officer and head of the Australian contingent on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway. Courageous and compassionate, he stood up to his captors at great personal risk, restored morale in the camps, and inspired his men to fight for their own survival. His influence among the troops was transformative. Many survived despite the odds.

These stories tell me that when courage and purpose meet, two things happen – someone is prepared to take the first brave steps and many more are inspired to join them. They co-create a community of leaders.