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The best leadership moments of the decade

From Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to Chobani’s commitment to hiring refugees, we take stock of the most inspiring leadership moments of the 2010s.

The best leadership moments of the decade
[Photos: Naomi Baker – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images (women’s soccer); Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images (Kaepernick); David McNew/Getty Images (same-sex marriage); Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images (Obama)]

Each December, Fast Company rounds up the year’s best and worst leadership moments. But as we bid adieu to an entire decade, it seemed only fitting to look back at the last 10 years instead.

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We thought the more hopeful moments would be harder to recall than the myriad scams and leadership failures that grabbed headlines. But for all the scandals and tragedies that punctuated the past decade, there were just as many instances of inspired leadership—often in response to those very hardships. Some of the names on this list aren’t leaders in the traditional sense but are simply people who acted powerfully at a particular historical moment.

Of course, a decade is a long time, which means some of the leaders we’ve lauded have made their fair share of missteps. But in the moments we’ve outlined below, their leadership made us optimistic during a difficult decade.

SCOTUS legalizes same-sex marriage

In June 2015, the Supreme Court made a historic ruling that finally granted same-sex couples the right to get married, in a 5-4 decision that saw Justice Anthony Kennedy voting with the more liberal justices on the court. As in prior gay rights cases, Kennedy was the swing vote and penned the majority opinion. “No longer may this liberty be denied,” Kennedy wrote. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

President Obama sings “Amazing Grace”

The deadly 2015 shooting in Charleston, when white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire on a historic black church, claimed the lives of nine people. In a eulogy for slain pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney, President Obama addressed a church—and nation—in mourning. His speech, which centered on the idea of grace, also touched on the country’s history of racial violence, the legacy of the Confederate flag, and reiterated the urgency of gun control measures. But in an unexpected closing, Obama segued into a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and the crowd joined in.

The diversity of the 2018 midterm elections

The Trump era has driven political engagement even in more unlikely corners, and at no point was that more clear than during the 2018 midterm elections. The candidates for office were some of the most diverse in the history of the U.S. with 272 women, 216 people of color, and 26 LGBTQ folks running for the House, Senate, and governor seats. A number of them didn’t have a traditional background in politics or hadn’t previously run for political office. There are now 126 women and 116 people of color with seats in Congress—both record highs.

The ACLU’s response to the Muslim ban

When President Trump announced a travel ban that would bar immigration from a number of Muslim-majority countries—on a Friday at 5 p.m., no less—the ACLU sprang into action. (It helped that someone had leaked a draft of the executive order to the ACLU days in advance.) Executive director Anthony Romero and the rest of his team got to work on getting a temporary stay on the executive order, to stop the deportations that were already underway; by Saturday night, a New York federal court judge had issued an injunction. (By the end of the year, however, the Supreme Court had given the green light to the Trump administration’s third version of the ban.)

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Colin Kaepernick takes a knee

As the national anthem played at an NFL preseason game in 2016, Colin Kaepernick stayed seated. It was his way of protesting racism and police brutality. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said at the time. At another game, he chose to take a knee instead, in response to criticisms that he was being disrespectful of the military. Kaepernick’s protest sparked a fiery debate, with a number of other athletes following his lead. Protests spilled over into the 2017 season, in part also a response to the violence in Charlottesville.

The women’s soccer team fights for equal pay

On International Women’s Day this year, the U.S. women’s soccer team, which won the last two World Cups, sued the U.S. Soccer Federation over gender discrimination. Despite the team’s success—especially in recent years, as game revenue has outpaced that of the men’s soccer team—its members have long been underpaid compared to their male counterparts. The suit doesn’t just address the pay gap, though; it also argues that the women’s team does not receive equal treatment with respect to training and working conditions, for example.

This isn’t just about pay equity on the women’s soccer team, of course: the team hopes to catalyze change across women’s teams around the world, and even take on FIFA.

The most inspiring #MeToo moments

A few months after the New York Times exposed decades of harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein and ignited the #MeToo movement, prominent women in Hollywood banded together to create an organization that would not only tackle harassment in their industry but also across blue-collar workplaces.

A legal defense fund would provide aid to women in low-wage industries who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to pursue legal action against sexual misconduct. Time’s Up was driven by heavy hitters like Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes, and at the Golden Globes just days after its launch, many actresses made a different kind of fashion statement, as they walked down the red carpet clad in black to protest sexual harassment. Some of them brought activists as guests, from Ai Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance to Saru Jayaraman, who advocates on behalf of restaurant workers.

But one of the most important #MeToo moments of this decade was when Christine Blasey Ford came forward with sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh in the lead-up to his confirmation to the Supreme Court. (Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.) Ford took the brave step of testifying publicly in a hearing that gripped the country—a decision that won her support from many, but also made her the target of endless threats and harassment.

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Positive changes to work culture and benefits

For all the harassment allegations and cases of company culture gone sideways, there were high points, too. Well before he floated a bid for the presidency, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz set a standard for providing benefits to low-wage workers. For years, the company has extended stock options and health benefits to both part-time and full-time employees.

Since 2013, Starbucks has hired 25,000 veterans and active-duty spouses, and in 2017, Schultz pledged to hire 10,000 refugees within five years; last year, Starbucks opted to give all its hourly workers paid leave.

Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has employed refugees for years—30% of his workforce is comprised of immigrants and refugees—and invited all employees, including factory workers, to share in the company’s profits and benefits like paid parental leave. Last year, Rent the Runway took steps to put both their classes of employees on more equal footing, by extending benefits like bereavement, parental leave, and family sick leave—which were previously only granted to corporate, salaried employees—to hourly employees who work in their warehouses and retail stores.

Many tech companies also took steps to improve benefits and work culture for corporate employees. Under Satya Nadella‘s leadership, Microsoft has not only generated more than $250 billion in market value but also made strides to improve company culture, from dialing back the internal competition of the Steve Ballmer-era to getting rid of forced arbitration for sexual harassment allegations. At Intel, a $300 million investment in diversity has noticeably increased its share of women and underrepresented minorities, in both technical and nontechnical roles (though white and Asian men still account for more than 70% of executive positions).

Even by tech standards, Netflix adopted an uncharacteristically generous parental leave policy in 2015 that gave new parents the ability to take up to one year of leave; the Gates Foundation introduced a 52-week leave policy as well. (A former Netflix employee did, however, sue the company for pregnancy discrimination, claiming that new parents weren’t exactly encouraged to take the full year off.)

The impact of gun control advocacy

A defining feature of this decade has been gun violence, from mass shootings to police brutality. But even in the face of political inaction, we’ve found hope in movements like Black Lives Matter and the activism of the Parkland students. Black Lives Matter first made its mark after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. But it was after the shooting of Michael Brown that the movement drew a wider audience, with people taking to the streets of Ferguson.

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More than 1.2 million people flocked to the March for Our Lives rally led by the Parkland students last year, who have also agitated for changes to how businesses restrict gun sales. Dick’s Sporting Goods was one of the major retailers that stopped selling guns altogether in response to the Parkland shooting.

Moms Demand Action, which coalesced after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, has pushed for businesses like Starbucks, Target, and Walmart to restrict open carry—or ban guns outright—in their stores. Levi’s, too, has taken a strong position on the issue. After a customer brought a gun into a Levi’s store in 2016 and accidentally shot himself, Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh wrote an open letter urging customers not to bring guns into the company’s stores. And after Parkland, Levi’s introduced the Safer Tomorrow Fund, which would put $1 million toward nonprofits and youth activists.

The rise of climate activism

The Paris climate agreement was a historic move toward addressing climate change on the world stage. President Trump has now officially pulled the U.S. out of the agreement, but a number of businesses have pledged their commitment to staying the course anyway.

Companies like Patagonia have supported environmental activism for decades, taking a stand on social and political issues long before it was fashionable. Last year, Patagonia donated its $10 million tax cut to grassroots environmental organizations and explicitly endorsed two Senate candidates with a record of protecting public lands. If their intentions weren’t clear already, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and CEO Rose Marcario recently changed the company’s mission statement to the following: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.”

But the most inspiring climate leadership this decade has come from a new crop of young activists. One of the most visible faces of the movement is 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who galvanized an estimated four million people across the world to strike for climate change in September—a moment that begin with Thunberg’s quiet protest outside the Swedish parliament a year prior. While Thunberg is an influential voice for climate activism, the Green New Deal—introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey—has shaped the climate conversation amongst presidential candidates and calls on the government to curb emissions and lead the way to reaching net-zero emissions globally by 2050.

Labor organizing for all workers

The Google Walkout, a response to a report that Google had awarded Andy Rubin a $90 million exit package in response to sexual harassment allegations against him, was an unprecedented show of protest from 20,000 Google employees across the world. (Rubin, for his part, denies the allegations.)

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The walkout organizers put forth a series of demands to address alleged issues of sexism and racism at the company—putting an end to forced arbitration, for example, as well as introducing pay transparency to mitigate pay inequities. Many of their demands weren’t met, and in the months since, several organizers have left the company over claims of retaliation. But the Google walkout has prompted ongoing conversations around systemic issues and introduced many tech workers to the power of organizing.

This holds true even for the tech workers who aren’t nearly as well compensated. Gig workers at companies like Uber and Instacart have fought against falling pay by organizing: Just last month, Instacart shoppers went on strike to demand better tips.

The evolution of disaster relief

Following the deadly earthquake in Haiti, chef José Andrés launched a nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, to provide meals to survivors in the aftermath of disasters. The organization has delivered 10 million meals since its inception; this year, it offered aid after 19 disasters and introduced a Climate Disaster Fund, through which World Central Kitchen plans to raise $50 million for disaster response.

Other celebrities have stepped up as well. Lin-Manuel Miranda raised $2.5 million in just 24 hours through a MoveOn campaign and helped drum up $43 million for the Hispanic Federation’s hurricane relief fund. Miranda even took his entire stage production of Hamilton to Puerto Rico, using the show as an opportunity to fundraise for Puerto Rico’s arts community—and lift spirits.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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