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Lessons in “Leading Through Adversity” from the Skoll World Forum

By Pat Mitchell

This is part of a series of articles about the 2016 Skoll World Forum, which took place April 13-15 in Oxford, England.

In April, I had the privilege of moderating a discussion at the Skoll World Forum on the subject of “Leading Through Adversity.” My panel consisted of Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first female president; Halla Tómasadóttir, a good friend who is currently campaigning to be president of Iceland; Alaa Murabit, an activist who founded The Voice of Libyan Women; and Rev. Canon Mpho A. Tutu, daughter of Nobel Peace-prize laureate, Desmond Tutu, and an ordained Episcopalian Minister in South Africa.

All of these women know a lot about leading through adversity. They talked about the need for more women in leadership positions and shared their ideas about what it takes to be a strong leader.

I hope you’ll take the time to view the entire discussion, but because I know how little time we all have for such reviews, I’ve focused on a few highlights from that conversation and links to other insights shared in other forums by these four women leaders.

One big take away from the Skoll World Forum session and many other conversations I’ve had over the years about women’s leadership is that the decision to become a leader is one that is often made early in one’s life. We began by talking about some of the formative experiences the women had had early on in their careers.

Mary Robinson first ran for political office in her early 20s. During that first campaign, she took a controversial and courageous stand on reforming family planning in Catholic Ireland. She became an object of hatred overnight, denounced from pulpits and the recipient of bags of hate mail. She still won, serving 20 years in Parliament and then seven years as president. “If you really believe in something and want it,” she explained, “you’ve got to pay a price—and you’ve got to be prepared to pay a price.”

Learning that lesson at a young age helped her to find the strength to maintain her values and principles while under attack throughout her political career, especially when she was seeking ways to build consensus. She says that these are skills she continues to use in her work as the climate ambassador for the UN.

Finding Common Ground

Alaa Murabit talked about the importance of consensus and finding common ground with those who oppose you in her work as a women’s rights activist in Libya.

Alaa is one of 11 children. Born in Canada, she returned to Libya in 2005 at the age of 15. She founded The Voices of Libyan Women and led a campaign to change the way in which women were represented and viewed in the country. She wanted to facilitate a national conversation about how the rules of Islam were being used to severely limit women’s rights in Libya. Early on in the process—to the dismay of some of her fellow women’s rights activists—she decided to include religious leaders in the conversation. By opening up the lines of communication, her campaign was able to gain access to schools and media outlets that enabled her to send her message out to the people who really needed to hear it.

In May of last year, Alaa gave a talk at TEDWomen about her campaign that has been watched by over 1.65 million people online. Her campaign, which has been recognized by the United Nations as one of the most successful in history, has been used as a model for similar work in 24 countries.

Another way in which the panelists talked about finding strength in the face of adversity was through faith.

Doing the Next Right Thing

Rev. Mpho A. Tutu talked about the need to stay strong in your faith in order to be courageous enough to defy the rules and politics that restrict personal freedoms—as is also the case for women in Libya—and even to challenge the religious beliefs and policies that restrict women’s rights and positions in their societies.

She also talked about growing up in the Tutu family and the lessons she learned from both her father and her mother, who she described as having her own “kitchen table ministry.” She told the audience: “That was the ministry that was most visible to us as a family on a daily basis.”

One of the main lessons she drew from both her parents was what she called the “courage to do the next right thing.” She explained: “The vision isn’t: I have in mind a Nobel Prize down the road. It is rather, the person in front of me now has a need for this type of care from me, and so this is what I’m going to do. All of us have the capacity for that piece of courage. I can do the next right thing.”

Until last month, Mpho was a leader in the Episcopalian church in South Africa. She challenged the church’s rules by marrying her partner, Marceline van Furth, and as a result was forced to resign her leadership position in the church.

The Strength of Community

All four women agreed that it’s always harder to be the first to challenge or to be alone facing adversity, and finding and building a community is critical to becoming and sustaining leadership positions.

Iceland’s Halla Tómasadóttir had faced adversity before when she was asked to help her country avoid the economic disaster of 2008. She and a woman partner created a new model of financial management based on feminine values. With their leadership, her company, Auour (Sister) Capital, weathered Iceland’s crisis and Halla proved herself to be a decisive, creative leader during very tough times.

“You have to be your authentic self to be a good leader and you have to stick to your principles,” she told the audience. “You have to believe in your insights and the way you feel just as much as what you can rationalize or what seems good to everyone else.”

Over the next few years, Halla built up a community of like-minded women business leaders by convening an annual women’s empowerment conference in Iceland and taking on leadership roles in the global business community. In March, she announced her intention to run for president of Iceland. Now she’s among the top four favored candidates in Iceland’s presidential election that will be held in two weeks.

After the panel, Mary posed for pictures with Halla and offered to go to Iceland to campaign for her…as did all of us, but Halla demurred, knowing the country’s political traditions are not based on fundraising or outside influence but rather on independent thinking that reflects on candidates’ experience and credentials of leadership within Iceland.

So all of us will be watching the polls closely on June 25 and sending all good thoughts for Halla’s election as well as in other elections around the world where women leaders are stepping up to leadership position or seeking them.

We know that in nearly every instance, from business to the public sphere, women leaders will be called upon to lead through adversity (note the numbers of women CEOs who are hired when companies are faltering) and the ways in which they face those challenges—how they approach problem solving, consensus building, and staying true to their values while embracing their power—will continue to make the case that women’s leadership can be just the change that’s needed for a country, a company or indeed even the world.

I have no doubt increasing the number of women in positions of leadership—from the president’s office to the pulpits, from the “C” suite to the front lines of every challenge and global crisis—will not only make it somewhat easier for other women to choose to become leaders but will also add to the insights and perspectives needed for the kind of leadership that results in less adversity and greater equity, peace and shared prosperity.

Watch the Entire Panel

With gratitude to these four incredible women for sharing their stories with me—

Pat

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