Embracing Leadership in an Era of Activism

by Diana Drake

Greta Thunberg has become a voice of change for Generation Z. At age 16, the climate change activist from Sweden has crossed oceans, marched for miles and spearheaded vocal protests and rallies to fight for what she believes: that climate change is real and needs to become a priority among global leaders.

As Thunberg told policy makers during the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September:

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

Thunberg represents the voice of an entire generation that is not afraid to hold leaders accountable – and to expect more from their decision-making, in business, politics and education. Michael Useem, a Wharton management professor who is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to discuss how the youth movement is influencing leadership.

Useem urged leaders to recognize the power of the collective youth voice. “There’s a generation that is saying they don’t want to spend their lives making something that is undermining the environment or has a health cost. They want to spend their lives contributing to the condition that we all want to have,” noted Useem. “If you’re thinking about leadership development…The new feature here is listening to the grassroots. They’ve got a different point of view.”

“At the core, leadership entails mobilizing yourself and others to make a difference in the lives of many.” — Michael Useem, Wharton Management Professor

As we listened to Useem’s guidance for business leaders in acknowledging and including the younger generation’s perspective, we wondered how he might also guide leadership development among high school students. What about all those Gen Zers who are inspired by Thunberg’s passion and purpose and also hope to become — as Hollywood star and environmentalist Leonard DiCaprio calls her — “A leader of our time”?

Useem offers this advice from years studying leaders of all kinds:

  1. Commit. “Decide to get involved,” he says. “A vital element of anybody’s leadership development is to take charge and lead change, and that’s entirely up to you. At the core, leadership entails mobilizing yourself and others to make a difference in the lives of many.”
  1. Learn. “Leadership is learned in three ways: by serving as a self-directed instructor — reading biographies, and watching other leaders in your school and community; by working with mentors, such as your parents, team coaches, school teachers and community members; and by getting out of your comfort zone so you can take on new agendas and obligations that require leadership from you, and allow you to learn from direct experiences.”
  1. Grow. While walkouts and protests have characterized recent youth movements in the U.S. and Hong Kong, with a focus on challenging authority, Useem urges leaders-in-training to recognize that leadership comes in many forms. In his book The Leader’s Checklist, Useem notes that effective leadership can be learned, and, indeed, should be learned, and that several principles apply to becoming strong leaders. No. 1 on his list: “Having a vision, a strategy, and being able to execute around it.” In an interview with our sister publication, Knowledge@Wharton, Useem shared the one principle that he feels aspiring leaders often overlook: Honoring the room. “In a discussion with one person, a team, a class, an off-site meeting, before you get off stage, take a moment to tell the people you are with — those who may be ready to follow you — that you know who they are, that you respect what they’re doing and that you’re extremely grateful for their hard work.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

What is accountability? What is responsibility? How do Greta Thunberg’s words reflect these concepts?

Which of the three suggestions that Michael Useem offers for “learning leadership” is most challenging for you? Why? How might you embrace this approach more effectively?

How are you developing your leadership skills? Share your story in the Comment section of this article and we may feature you in Knowledge@Wharton High School.

2 comments on “Embracing Leadership in an Era of Activism

  1. The responsibility of environmental protection is one that has been largely left unshouldered throughout many generations. In a world of thriving industrial growth and manufacturing, it becomes easy to overlook the essential resources necessary for a sustainable life. However, as Greta Thunberg exclaims, climate change is real and its addressing needs to become a priority amongst global leaders. Such initiative and passion have brought a once overlooked issue into the limelight of the world’s most powerful nations and leaders. Consequently, through the development of such evidence, this article works to both incite and answer the age-old question: Do the voices of the youth truly make a difference?
    Whereas some would discourage such children who speak out against common practice as rebellious and defiant, overwhelming empirical analysis suggests that youthful initiative is key for the progression of society. From the students of Florida advocating for stricter gun laws to the children of Poland demanding a better environment, young leadership is working to create a better future for our planet. As mentioned in the article, Michael Useem, a Wharton management professor, exemplifies a similar understanding. His encouraging statements and advice, work to serve as support for aspiring young individuals looking to make a difference. As a high school student reading such words, I found it to be a voice of inspiration, but also one of guidance. Already being involved as the coordinator of an environmental organization known as SENSE, (Student Environmental Network for A Sustainable Earth) embracing fundamentals such as commitment, learning, and growth, were wonderful takeaways from such a reading. They work to develop the notion that change comes in the form of investment and not with time. Such ideas worked to promote a sense of inclusivity that any individual no matter their size, stature, or age, has the capability to promote progress and inspire change.

  2. After reading this article, I became even more aware of the urgency to tackle prominent existing issues and encourage student input and advocacy to, as Useem stated, commit, learn, and grow student initiatives and actions. In the case of Greta Thunberg, an inspiring, motivated, and quintessential activist, her willingness to challenge global leaders on climate change despite the heavy imbalance of authority is extraordinary and commendable. Her firm and emotional statement, so compact and truthful, has every reason to prove that she feels inherently frustrated with the characteristics that many influential leaders seem to possess: the status quo and optimistic bias indicate a reluctance to implement change. I believe that this perception is often shared amongst other environmentalists and activists, which adds to exasperation: why won’t today’s influential leaders do anything to help our environment?

    Everyone knows that Gen Z’ers will eventually be the ones to step up to tackle this environmental issue head-on, but how about the translation from motivation to action on challenging current leaders to create a sustainable impact? Useem’s encouragement of student activism and the emphasis on how current leaders should recognize and accept younger voices are essential to fostering an emerging community of committed and aspiring young leaders. Furthermore, without the leeway or a platform to make students feel heard, wouldn’t this negligence contradict the American core value of progress and hamper the development of youth minds and callings to action?

    Connecting these thoughts to my personal life, I believe that congressional leaders are slowly accepting student input – a valuable and informative source that highlights the perspective of younger generations. For example, in January of 2020, I attended the Intergenerational Climate Lobby Day hosted by Climate Strike and several other environmental justice organizations in Boston. Students get to meet with several congressional aides or leaders throughout the day; in these brief meetings, students share personal anecdotes, ask for clarifications on sustainability policies, seek advice for campaigns, and push for more student input on climate-related bills. Regarding student activism, student-led initiatives have been active on my high school campus, including the Sustainability Coalition, clubs oriented towards climate education, competition, and technology, and periodic lobbying events, which provided more opportunities for students to offer their insight through their voice and passion-driven actions.

    Furthermore, as a social entrepreneur myself, I sought different approaches to create a meaningful impact on my community to help tackle environmental issues and relieve the underprivileged of deprivation, particularly on access to daily necessities, especially during the pandemic. Towards the beginning stages of the outbreak, a group of aspiring students from my school decided to establish a nonprofit tackling food waste and insecurity, and I immediately hopped on board to become the manager of the Connecticut branch. Thus, Stem4Free is born, an entirely student-led 501(c)(3) organization where student volunteers would reach out and form partnerships with local restaurants and food banks and facilitate or perform donations routinely.

    However, difficulties quickly ensued at my branch, partially demoralizing our team spirit. Our team contacted over 100 restaurants and food banks through email and phone calls but could not establish any formal partnerships. Hence, we decided to revise our email structure and ‘pitch’ on the brink of desperation. It is essential to know that although I am passionate about environmental justice, I had minimal outreach and communications experience. Despite the setbacks, our team’s cohesion and willingness to persevere eventually guided us to establish several connections. We expanded our student volunteer base to roughly 30 with our initial successes and set a club at a local high school. As of now, the Connecticut branch was able to tally up close to 50,000 food servings in donations.

    According to Useem’s advice, growth is a crucial next step for active student leaders to pursue. Currently, I, along with the other executive board members of the nonprofit, sought to expand our network to more branches and programs to incorporate further development of climate education and encouragement of student activism. It is motivating how Stem4Free had grown so much, with over 10 branches in 6 countries, more than 120 partnerships and 225 student volunteers across the entire platform, and most importantly, over a total of 770,000 food servings donated since our establishment. Therefore, I wish to continue this social entrepreneurial journey to help develop an even greater community of active volunteers and inspire other aspiring student leaders to step out of their comfort zone and take action to better their communities and beyond.

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