Five Leadership Lessons From Malala Yousafzai

The teenage activist at the center of Davis Guggenheim’s new film reminds us that the messenger is just as important as the message.

Five Leadership Lessons From Malala Yousafzai
[Photo: Torbjørn Kjosvold/FMS/Flickr user Statsministerens kontor]

You probably wouldn’t think to look to a high school junior for lessons in leadership. But the 18-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai is no ordinary high school student. In her short life, she’s not only drawn international attention to a massive problem—that of the 61 million girls around the world who don’t have access to an education—she’s persuaded world leaders to start taking real action to fix it.

As the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman) new documentary He Named Me Malala hits theaters this week, it’s worth drawing a few lessons from someone whose influence, courage, and resolve have been felt around the world before she’s even hit 20.

1. Take A Stand

Malala was raised in a household that valued education, but when the Taliban started to close schools throughout Pakistan’s Swat Valley–bombing many of them–her dream of getting an education started to slip away. Many girls were terrorized into staying at home, but Malala, a devout Muslim and just 11 years old at the time, defiantly continued to go to school.

In fact, she did more than that. She started to write about her life, anonymously, for BBC Urdu online. Malala’s blog went viral, but it didn’t change things where she lived. The Taliban was still in control. At great personal risk, Malala started to speak out, using her real identity—“wherever, whenever, to who[m]ever would listen”—on radio and TV and to national and foreign journalists. It took tremendous courage to do that, but because she did, Malala’s message has caught on and compelled millions of people to listen.

Any leader—whether an educator, entrepreneur, or activist—who is advocating for a new way of doing things is bound to face resistance. The status quo never changes on its own. Facing down resistance takes commitment and sacrifice. But leaders who publicly stand up for their beliefs can accomplish something even greater than motivating others to take action on their behalf. They can inspire people to see a new potential within themselves. Those who lead by example empower others to imagine that they, too, can be more and do more than they might have ever thought possible.

2. Find Your Story

Malala knew that to win support for her cause, she’d have to master the art of persuasion—in a word, storytelling. She says she spent many hours standing in the bathroom, “staring at the mirror and practicing speeches” so diligently, that her little brothers would pound on the door, desperate to get in.

Malala came to realize that her life, her struggles, and her aspirations made the most effective story. That’s why she wrote a book and called it I Am Malala, and that’s why she agreed to let Guggenheim make a film about her. Malala doesn’t recount her experiences just for the sake of publicity. She does it to grab people’s attention and inspire them to join a cause that’s far bigger than her.

Leaders can become so immersed in the details of their undertakings that they forget to communicate why they’re important in the first place. One of the best ways to get across your message is with a simple and memorable story. And of course, no one is a born storyteller. It’s a learned art. No matter what form of messaging a leader turns to—social media, writing, public speaking—becoming a good storyteller and message shaper requires practice, humility, openness to criticism, and plenty of trial and error.

3. Be Yourself

Malala might have a voice on the world stage, but she doesn’t pretend she’s the world’s greatest authority on education. She understands that to persuade people, she needs to let them see who she really is. Although she always advocates for what she believes in, she uses her pranksterish humor, candor, and youthful charm to disarm people, whether they’re global leaders like President Obama and Queen Elizabeth or late-night talk show hosts like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Malala is honest and direct. She shares things about herself—some lighthearted, like how she loves to tease her brothers and her obsession with arm wrestling, and some poignant, like her concern for her homeland and her insecurities about being a teenager. Because Malala is unapologetically herself, her message resonates with that thing all leaders require: authenticity.

It’s natural for leaders to want to impress others, to play a part that sometimes isn’t quite genuine—to come off as the smartest one in the room or the one with all the answers. Manufactured personas turn people off. A true leader knows that they’ll be more compelling, persuasive, and inspiring to others if they express all parts of their personality evenhandedly—including their humor, humility, and even their vulnerability. Sometimes the messenger is just as important as the message.

4. Listen Well

Malala travels the globe, visiting troubled communities to meet girls facing some of the same obstacles she faced in Pakistan. Malala intuitively understands that she won’t be able to help if she assumes she knows exactly what they need. Once there—in Gaza, in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, in Nigeria, Kenya, and Sierra Leone—she asks young women questions that are too often answered for them by others: What do you need? What do you want your future to look like? What can I do for you?

Two years ago, Malala met with young Syrian refugees living in camps in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, where there were no schools. The girls told Malala that since they’d been driven from their homes, they desperately needed to learn vocational skills along with standard academics. Malala took this message back to her organization, the Malala Fund, in order to help open a school that provides teaching in both to more than 200 Syrian teenage girls.

Because she’s become an adept listener, Malala has developed a brain trust of young local activists. They keep her informed of their ideas and their progress. And for her part, Malala uses her powerful infrastructure—the fund’s blog and social media and her high-powered global connections—to amplify their voices, getting their messages out, and raising money to support their efforts to bring educational opportunities to their communities.

Leaders, short on time and long on commitment, can sometimes overlook this crucial aspect of leadership—listening. No individual can know everything. When leaders isolate themselves from their employees or customers, they risk missing opportunities and even losing control of their organizations. Knowledge is power, and those who listen will always know more than those who don’t.

5. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

Malala never dreamed of taking vengeance against her attackers. In fact, when she spoke to the U.N. Youth Assembly, she advocated for the “right of education for every child,” even “the sons and daughters of the Taliban.” It’s not that Malala is a saint, a pushover, or disconnected from her emotions, but she realizes that stewing in anger and hating her enemies won’t help a single child go to school.

That self-awareness prevents Malala from misdirecting her energy and instead channels her passion into what really matters. Any leader who takes on a big challenge will face complex problems that kick up a dust storm of emotions, from frustration and anger to depression and despair. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes, humans aren’t purely “thinking machines,” but ”feeling machines that think.”

True leaders make every effort not to surrender to the emotions that threaten to undermine them. It’s not that any particular emotion is necessarily good or bad. Even anger or despair can at times trigger positive action. But the question to pose to yourself is this: Will acting out this emotion help me get what I’ve been working so hard for, or just get in the way?

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