Societal Leaders – What Does It Take to Become One?

I have had the privilege to work with a few people who I would describe as societal leaders – they work for the betterment of all society and typically are found in the hardest of contexts such as conflict or poverty. I have got to know them and understand what it is that makes them be who they are. I have set out four personal observations. These are not intended as a rigorous study – more as a catalyst for thought and debate.

Experiences outside the norms of normal life

Societal leaders have mostly had experiences that are outside of the norms of most people’s experience – some have suffered significantly, some have seen abject suffering, some have lost someone close to them at a crucial moment in life – and this experience has generated a profound and sustained drive towards a calling that they cannot walk away from. They develop a purpose for their life that is way beyond themselves; in fact, for many, it becomes so important that they are often prepared to lose their own lives for the society that they serve.

In fact, many societal leaders are born into very healthy and supportive environments – and it is in the stepping into the challenge that they then truly transform themselves. Societal leadership does not mean one has to be born into these challenging conditions; it requires caring, and then being courageous enough to step in.

Values of love and fairness

Threatening or harsh conflict seems to send human beings in one of two ways – they can become more tribal, with a higher propensity to violence; or they can become even more values-driven, more empathetic, more capable of embracing the perspectives of others, even more humble – and more full of love for the wider world.

These societal leaders have an enormous capacity for forgiveness, to not seek revenge, to work for a greater good –that takes remarkable levels of discipline and resolve.

An extraordinary level of self-awareness

Lao Zhu said “Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment. Overcoming others is strength, overcoming yourself is true power.” The societal leaders I have worked with understand and embody the most progressive notions of leadership, even though they have had limited development in this field. They have all had significant periods of self-reflection on who they really are, what they stand for and how they can derail and enable themselves and their society.

A capacity for understanding complexity

In one of our peace building programmes, a quote from Rumi became profoundly insightful to the group: Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. These leaders are able to act from a place beyond disturbance, one-sidedness, polarisation and bias– they can see the wider picture, the longer term, as well as the momentary and the political.  A Mindell called these societal leaders as elders, saying world elders enable communication by encouraging others to go over their edges, to flow over boundaries that separate us.


These observations are intended only as a catalyst for thought. Perhaps it means for us that if we want to find our most extraordinary version of ourselves, it requires us to step into societal challenges that are truly complex and challenging (which may actually intimidate us), to develop disciplined practices of self-reflections and find ways to grow our love and compassion for the societies we are all a part of.