Student Essay: The Power of Stories to Inspire Strong Leaders

by Diana Drake

Maya S. is a Muslim, Egyptian and student athlete who has lived in Saudi Arabia for most of her life. She is 16 and a junior at the American International School of Riyadh, where she is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program.

In this Student Essay of the Week, Maya talks about how building a platform for others to share their stories has helped her understand why welcoming diversity of thought and experience will make her a stronger, more empathetic leader.

Three steps forward and two steps back. That was my reality during the privilege walk.

In October 2018, I was selected along with 50 other high school students to attend a leadership trip to a farm outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We believed that we were all going to learn about how to become leaders with strong voices. However, the trip took a completely unexpected and inspiring turn. Instead, we left knowing how to listen first and speak second.

At the farm, we participated in an activity called a privilege walk, where we were asked to step forward or backward in response to certain questions. From the responses, it became obvious that all of us were struggling with something that those around us knew nothing about.

I learned that the girl beside me once wondered where her next meal would come from. The girl beside her was afraid to leave the house at night because she had been assaulted. The boy to my left had been held at gunpoint. And the boy beside him had a mental disorder. This realization hit me hard. I was able to understand that although it’s impossible for us all to experience the same things, it is possible for us to try and listen to each other and understand each other’s differences. I began to appreciate the meaning of finding beauty in diversity. During that trip I learned that true leaders listen to the voices of others, and as a result they are able to enrich their own points of view.

“Living with anxiety is like feeling alive through the motions of life, but never freely living. It’s being aware of my surroundings, but lost in another world inside my head.”

During the summer of that year, someone I loved dearly was faced with medical issues, and my family began dealing with a lot of uncertainty. Even when it was all over, I felt lost and changed. I couldn’t explain it, but I wished that someone understood. I then began thinking of the people standing around me that day in Riyadh during the privilege walk, and everyone around the world like us. Did we all feel the same desire to be understood? How could we all feel seen and valued, regardless of our stories? I wanted to hear more about the stories of all those kids I met that day in line. I wanted to understand how we all ended up there, despite our different paths. I wanted to create something that would allow them to express their stories.

That summer, I started Voice of Change, a weblog that allows other teenagers to contribute writing that reflects the experiences that have shaped them. The first story I received was “Purpose,” from a girl struggling with depression. She wrote, “Purpose: a reason, a given, motivation, a point. We all live life because we have a purpose. We realize that there is a point, we have motivation and a reason to live. We look forward to things and create opportunities for ourselves. We see a future. Imagine living life feeling as though you have no purpose… That means no reason, no motivation, simply no point… the best way to describe this feeling is as if [you’re] dead. This feeling is depression.”

After I posted the article, which talked about how depression impacted the author’s life, I received comments, emails and texts from others saying that the article communicated what they needed to hear and couldn’t put into words. This initial response fueled the rest of my work. I began receiving other stories about challenging experiences, ranging from sexual assault and racial discrimination, to losing a loved one and struggling with body image. Here are a few powerful quotes from these articles:

“I’m not sure who or what I’m living for, but I’d never want to risk my family members feeling as I do right now. It’s okay that I’m suffering right now, because I have faith that it will pass, eventually it will.” – “Live On”

“I am not ignorant because I’m Arab. I’m not a terrorist because I’m Muslim. I am not a thug because I’m black. I am not who I am because of what you see on the news. I am who I am because of what I’ve been through, and what I have become.” – “Assume”

“Living with anxiety is like feeling alive through the motions of life, but never freely living. It’s being aware of my surroundings but lost in another world inside my head.” – “I Choose Life”

I see my Voice of Change journey as having so much to do with becoming a better leader. It has helped me to see clearly the type of leader I hope to become. I have developed a stronger perspective by understanding the voices and stories of others. I have become more empathetic to other people’s struggles, a quality I will need when I run my own business one day. You can’t understand your customers’ wants or your employees’ needs if you don’t listen and appreciate where they’re coming from. Also, Voice of Change has shown me how much our experiences shape us and contribute to how we see the world and solve problems. Each person offers a unique voice and a different perspective – all powerful and important in their own way.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

What is empathy and why is it such an important leadership quality? How is empathy related to storytelling? Use the Related Links with this article if you need to better understand empathy.

How have your experiences shaped you? Share your story in the Comment section of this article.

Maya writes that she has come to appreciate “how much our experiences shape us and contribute to how we see the world and solve problems.” Diversity of thought is incredibly powerful in the business world. Why does it hold such value? How does it enrich the team dynamic and important outcomes?

5 comments on “Student Essay: The Power of Stories to Inspire Strong Leaders

  1. Hi Maya,
    Thank you for sharing your fantastic story with us.
    Being able to appreciate the people around you and, in first place, yourself is one of the major keys to success and, most importantly, happiness in life, at least according to my experience. We all come from different environments and experiences, the same ones which make us who we are, in our uniqueness and diversity, as you clearly and beautifully stated in your essay. Appreciation is one of those emotions, if that’s how we want to define it, I have learned to consider and embrace later in life, but it is surely the one all the rest comes down to: appreciation for life, appreciation for love from our beloved ones…
    Having dealt throughout life with friends who coped with depression and anxiety, I can say I have experienced the emotional upheaval that tends to follow this kind of acknowledgements. It gives you a completely different perspective on the world, on the people that surround you and on the way you look at your very own life. On the other hand, I’ve been lucky enough to feel the wonderful sense of relief and joy which comes after helping this people, which taught me the value of the word, indeed, appreciation.
    In the same way I’ve been able to help my dearest friends deal with these horrible feelings and find a way out of them, I find what you have done with this very same individuals awesome: not only giving them a voice through the blog, but giving their peers the chance to find sympathy and reassurance in their words.
    Keep it up! And take care.

  2. Sonder – n. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness (The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows).

    I believe that sonder, a short and simple made-up word to describe a complex feeling, perfectly captures the spirit of Maya and her article. Maya realized the complexity of the lives of those around her, that every stranger on the leadership trip had their own unique story to tell, filled with their personal struggles. She reaches the conclusion that “each person offers a unique voice and a different perspective – all powerful and important in their own way.”

    Sonder, and more broadly, empathy, is a crucial element of being a good leader. I had my own moment of sonder last summer when I had the opportunity to volunteer at my local Chinese senior center. I started volunteering there because I had to fill my school’s requirement for service hours but ended up gaining much more out of it than that. At first, I was wary of taking on the job because my Chinese conversational skills were acceptable at best and rudimentary at worst. However, I quickly found that the seniors were very welcoming and were just happy that someone was willing to sacrifice their time to help out. I performed tasks such as preparing and serving food as well as helped teach ESL and citizenship classes. I learned about the hard work ethic of the workers and volunteers around me while washing apples. I learned about the amiability and habits of the seniors in the lunchroom. There would always be those in the back table playing cards, the younger seniors chatting in the front, and the seasoned mahjong players upstairs. I even had the chance to hear some of their rich stories, stories of their journeys of emigrating from communist China, stories of their successful children, stories of their war experiences, and stories of their hope in America. I truly understood that these seniors, whom I would not have given a second glance on the street, lived such deep and meaningful lives, each of which would be a thrilling standalone novel.

    Just like Maya learned to understand those from different backgrounds, I was able to empathize with these seniors and develop an appreciation for their experiences. We should all have empathy for each other in this world full of division and hatred. Sonder helps us have that empathy not only with those close to us but with everyone around us.

  3. When I became the youngest Student Council President of my school, my idea of a strong leader was someone who could command and lead a group of people with total authority the way they like it. So, that’s what I tried to do during my early days as a leader. I thought I would be a strong leader by commanding the student council and demonstrating my full authority over the rest. But after the first month, like Maya, the experience of being a leader took a completely unexpected and inspiring turn. I learned, like Maya, that you have to listen first and speak second. It is by listening to others that makes you a stronger leader because it is easier to command and display your authority. But it is harder to swallow your pride and listen to others when their opinions or stories differ from yours.

    Therefore, in the Student Council that I am in, I launched an initiative called “Listen Monday” with the purpose of listening to everyone’s opinions and views in the student council and utilizing them for the betterment of the school.

    By understanding the voices of others it has helped me develop a better perspective. I have become more empathetic to others. Listening to others has allowed me to see the full picture that I have never seen. And because I see the bigger picture, I realized that other’s experiences can help shape how I see the world and solve problems. As Maya said, each person offers a unique voice and a different perspective, all-powerful and important in their own way.

    I want to thank Maya for inspiring me.

  4. When I became the youngest Student Council President of my school, my idea of a strong leader was someone who could command and lead a group of people with total authority the way they like it. So, that’s what I tried to do during my early days as a leader. I thought I would be a strong leader by commanding the student council and demonstrating my full authority over the rest. But after the first month, like Maya, the experience of being a leader took a completely unexpected and inspiring turn. I learned, like Maya, that you have to listen first and speak second. It is by listening to others that makes you a stronger leader because it is easier to command and display your authority. But it is harder to swallow your pride and listen to others when their opinions or stories differ from yours.

    Therefore, in the Student Council that I am in, I launched an initiative called “Listen Monday” with the purpose of listening to everyone’s opinions and views in the student council and utilizing them for the betterment of the school.

    By understanding the voices of others it has helped me develop a better perspective. I have become more empathetic to others. Listening to others has allowed me to see the full picture that I have never seen. And because I see the bigger picture, I realized that other’s experiences can help shape how I see the world and solve problems. As Maya said, each person offers a unique voice and a different perspective, all-powerful and important in their own way. I realized exhaustively now that a strong leader is someone that listens first and speak second.

    I want to thank Maya for inspiring me to become a better leader.

    • Hello L Dau K!

      Thank you for sharing your experience and lessons as a student council president. Listening to your implementation of listening Mondays has brought me back to a time when I was the storyteller, pouring my life out, not to a student council president, but to my mother.

      Before the story begins, I must tell you about my mother. She is a very successful corporate leader of hundreds of people. Of course, when it comes to life, she’s never lost her footing when it comes to parenting. Her dogma for me was always the same as that for her employees. She required me to write a time schedule and reflect on life every day and report my academic progress to her with a PowerPoint presentation every week. Similar to your listening Mondays, but coerced. Of course, these rules also apply to her employees. I argued with her countless times, berating her for treating me, at the time, a 12-year-old, as her employee. Perhaps you have already begun to detest my mother’s parenting philosophy, or that she is just another derelict mother who neglects her children’s emotional needs to give her career 100%. But she was a mother for the first time, and I as her oldest child witnessed her growth and how she became a leader, both to her employees and to me.

      Where should I begin my story with this leader? As I counted the episodes that flashed through my mind, neither the long conversation in the evening breeze nor the laughing conversation in the dark living room seemed like the most appropriate beginning of the story. Puzzled, I put down my thoughts and sat down to recall the beginning of our conversations. There’s no longer nameless fear and tension when she approaches me, dreading to hear what she has to say. Instead, I always walked up to her when I found her alone, and the dialogue always began with a sigh. I told her many stories about young love, friends, hobbies, and self-reflection, all parts of me that I was reluctant to reveal in PowerPoints. She is busy all day but never said no when I started a conversation. I could feel that she valued every part of our communication, regardless of how nonsensical it was, taking it wholeheartedly. She would sit down and listen to every word I had to say, and she would take to heart every hint of emotion I tried to convey. She did her best to understand my passions, cater to my needs, and embrace my sentiments. And that’s one of the most valuable lessons she’s taught me as a leader.

      My mother’s growth as a leader came naturally to her as she listened to every ebullient story and every heart-wrenching sob. She did what many leaders, even in family relationships, fail to do: give the most attention to her children and subordinates, dwelling on their stories, bringing herself into their emotions, and living their experiences. Simply receiving a comment differentiates from understanding the root of their feedback. Through sharing stories with my mother, as my thoughts became words and leaped out of my mouth, my thoughts received a carrier. The stories I told were imparted with meaning through the process of communication. These words made me who I am and marked every footprint of mine. Not only giving her a chance to guide me but giving me a chance to recourse, bonding two unknown souls by building emotional bridges rather than giving ice-cold PowerPoint presentations. I myself am walking on those bridges, and I will be learning to build them up. Through open communication, we can build bridges high enough to see the world from a bigger view, see the tips of Mt. Everest, hear the mumbles of rhinoceros and vaquitas, and unveil a side of the world that we have never seen before.

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