A young woman recently wrote to me expressing her desire to contribute to change in Malawi but describing how she felt overwhelmed by the enormous needs she witnessed all around her. Where could she even begin? This week’s column, initially published in August 2013, is to encourage my young friend and others like her. She can begin making a difference right where she is, one person at a time. As Mother Teresa said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”
Elizabeth Mauske, a contributor to Reader’s Digest, tells the story of an unusual friendship that developed between her mother and an old native Indian woman when the family lived in the Araucanía Region of southern Chile. The Araucanían woman would visit their home often, always bringing a few partridge eggs or a handful of berries as a gift. The woman only spoke Araucanían and Elizabeth’s mother only spoke Spanish so their conversation was minimal, but they would sit at the table, drinking tea and eating cake together, smiling and laughing. Elizabeth and her sisters noticed that each time the woman would rise to leave she would say the exact same words. The girls memorized the phrase and found someone who could translate Araucanían for them. What Elizabeth found out touched her deeply. The Araucanían woman would rise from the table with a smile and say: “I shall come again, for I like myself when I am near you.”
Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother, once found herself seated for dinner next to William Gladstone, the leader of Britain’s opposition party at the time. The next evening she sat next to Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s Prime Minister. When asked about her impression of the two men she replied, “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman in England.” Queen Victoria also once famously complained about Gladstone, “He always addresses me as if I were a public meeting.”
All of us have the potential to be transformational leaders because leadership is all about relationship. Leadership guru Dr John Maxwell authored a book, the 360 degree leader, in response to the many people who would come up to him after his leadership conferences and explain that, although they liked the leadership principles he was teaching, they could not apply them because they were not the main leader in their organization. In the book, Dr Maxwell argues that anyone can lead from anywhere in the organization. He explains that 360 degree leaders can lead people above them, beside them and below them because leadership is not about title or position. Leadership is about influence.
No matter who we are, we all influence someone. Whether we’re a child influencing our peers, a parent influencing our children, or a global leader influencing fellow world leaders, we all have a certain degree of influence. Therefore, we all function in a leadership capacity to some extent every day. The extent of our influence however, depends on the extent to which we have connected with people. Those who influence us most are those who connect with us most. We may not even know them personally, but they influence us by identifying with us in some way.
Our influence with other peopl e depends on the relationship that we have developed with them. Dale Carnegie, author of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you”. John Maxwell says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.
Becoming a transformational leader means taking the time to show people that you care. And we can all do that, whether we are a housewife, like Elizabeth’s mother, or the Prime Minister of a nation, like Disraeli. Or even like William Gladstone. At first glance, Gladstone appears to have lacked the social skills necessary to take him far in his leadership role. However, he served in politics for sixty years, becoming Prime Minister on four different occasions and serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer four separate times too. The secret to Gladstone’s success was in who he connected with. Although he did not connect with Winston Churchill’s mother or with Queen Victoria, he did connect with the people.
Gladstone was affectionately known by his supporters as “The People’s William”. He started his political career by walking the streets of London at night, rescuing and rehabilitating prostitutes, and encouraging the young women to pursue a better way of life. He continued the practice even when he was Prime Minister. As a government minister, he fought to abolish corrupt work practices where men were hired for a day’s work at the recommendation of the local tavern owner. The tavern owner would only recommend men who purchased large quantities of alcohol, and workers would often show up at work sites to perform dangerous tasks while drunk. Crowds flocked to hear Gladstone on the campaign trail, where he declared that he “would back the masses against the upper classes”. During the Midlothian campaign of 1879, often cited as the first modern political campaign in Britain, he addressed an unprecedented total of 86,930 people.
Transformational leadership is about caring for people, something that seems to be lacking amongst Malawian leaders today, a view expressed so eloquently in an email I received from reader G.K.: “In Malawi, leadership is about the leader himself. There is completely no interest of the nation at heart, thus leaving the whole nation lagging behind in everything. Malawian leaders are in the habit of me, me, me, myself and I. There should be an end to this.”