I wrote the following for the Oslo Scholars Program blog, after attending the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. The original post can be found here.
How do we measure greatness? How do we affect change, and how does change affect us? Asking these questions is not encouraged as much as it should be. As a recent university graduate, I would argue that the role of introspection in leadership was barely, if at all, addressed in my time as a student, not even as the class of 2011 prepared to move into the hardly real “real world.” The metrics by which we judge ourselves, our public leaders, and those deemed “heroes” have evolved. The pervasiveness and persuasiveness of social media have altered the ways in which we fight, the ways in which we organize and assert our voice. Indeed without such tools many of today’s political struggles would be moving at a much slower pace; however, social tools also run the risk of lowering the standard of leadership and the quality of personhood that was once central to starting movements, to changing lives, and to leading nations.
I am a member of the unfortunately named “Twitter generation,” a generation that has proven the power of 140 characters or less. Ironically though, for me, the words from the Oslo Freedom Forum that most resonated were those of Aung San Suu Kyi, “the Lady” as she is simply known. Paying homage to the great man—Vaclav Havel—whose name has now been commemorated by the HRF’s Prize for Creative Dissent, Suu Kyi spoke not of herself nor of the mechanisms of mobilization used by Burmese opposition leaders, but rather almost exclusively of her personal hero, Havel himself. What she emphasized was Havel’s unique way of mentoring, even if unknowingly, hundreds of revolutionaries, liberators, and sequestered leaders around the world. And how did Havel do it? It was an inspiration he exuded, a power of mind and of will that was doubtless the result of hard work both internal and external, of inconvenient struggles and very personal sacrifices.
For those of my generation, recognition and fame have been somewhat democratized. In many senses that is wonderful, as collective successes can be applauded and attributed to the many who struggle and fight for a given cause. On the other side, though, there is a barrier to accountability, a decrease in the role of interpersonal communication and connection; this is arguably the downside of social media. While I unwaveringly appreciate the role of Twitter and Facebook in political and civil rights movements—and spending time with people like Maikel Nabil and Mona Eltahawy this week reaffirmed that for me—those who exude the most power of spirit are often those who are still somewhat ignorant of technology, apathetic as to its applications, and therefore confined in terms of their means of mobilizing support and igniting the hearts and minds of followers.
Three years of attending the Oslo Freedom Forum have both reshaped the way I understand mass movements and also solidified the importance of personal greatness, which I define as far more than the sum of great deeds. To steal words from a friend, most of my generation so often focuses on doing great things, instead of on being great people. Many of the world’s most cited heroes never planned their heroism. Their impact was not fully calculated. They were simply men and women with the convictions and power of spirit to be the name and the face and the final push in what was a cresting wave composed of thousands of martyrs, thousands of minds, and tens of years of momentum.
Greatness, like love, is difficult to plan. And also like love, greatness is predicated on hard work, relies at times on memory and hope to sustain the will, and requires vulnerability. I myself have trouble grasping the balance of greatness and vulnerability—it always takes a while for me to understand this deep impulse that at first seems a contradiction. But year after year I meet people like Gilbert Tuhabonye and Somaly Mam, who, in the words of Justine Hardy, had to “heal themselves before they could heal others.” Their greatness has been built on a deliberate, if arduous, process of forgiveness, introspection, and unity of purpose. They remain vulnerable, if for no other reason than simply by virtue of the fact that their memories are still theirs to bear while their pasts are readily accessible on the pages of Wikipedia. The process of cultivating greatness in others, of impacting those with similar experience, of living an impossibly others-centric lifestyle requires a deliberateness that cannot be confined to 140 characters or less.