Leaders Don’t Wait for Leaders
Part 1: a personal story about enabling change
A few years ago, I took a gap year after college and returned to the Togolese Republic, my home country.
Among the multitude of things I missed, street food ranked high.
The next morning after my arrival in Togo, I walked around the neighborhood and spotted a few street food stalls. I ended up basing my decision on two criteria: the food I missed the most at the time and the distance from my house.
Luckily, there was a woman who sold rice and beans just a minute away from where I lived. When I was in Lomé (the capital), every morning, without fail, I bought rice and beans from her. Sometimes, I was there before she even showed up.
One would think her rice and beans was the most savory in the country. No it wasn’t. Her food was good, but my mom could cook it better at home.
each time I bought her rice and beans, I doubled the amount I owed her. So, if I bought, say, $2 worth of rice and beans, I would give her $4. If I also bought food for a couple of my cousins, I would still double the money I owed her.
To be clear, I am not wealthy. I’m still struggling to attain that status. But since I was living in the U.S. where the cost of living was much higher, the money I was spending on the rice and beans and the tips (let’s call it that) I was giving the seller didn’t hurt my budget.
For the rice and beans seller, my “substantial” tips made a significant difference in her life. It impacted her in a way that I did not foresee.
The first time I doubled the money, I didn’t intend to make a habit out of it. The next day though (a Saturday), I noticed there was a young girl with her. She must have been 9 or 10 years old at most. From their conversation, I quickly understood the girl was the food seller’s daughter and she came to help her mom out for the day. Occasionally when I arrived early to the spot, I saw the young girl helping her mom set up before she returned home to get ready for school.
I never probed the woman to understand her financial situation, but I was certain the tips I gave her would be sufficient to pay her daughter’s school fees. And for me, that’s all that mattered.
During our lifetime, we’ll observe and experience many things that are just not right in our communities. And often, we may feel that we are incapable of doing anything to change them.
But remember this:
A very little key will open a very heavy door
— Charles Dickens
Perhaps she was already managing to pay her daughter’s school fees. Still, I was convinced my tips would go a long way in the woman’s life. She could have used my tips to buy books for her daughter or, maybe, she had other children and was really struggling to make ends meet. Either way, my small tips was changing someone’s life in a positive way and, again, that’s all that mattered.
Part 2: Why change can only start with you
I didn’t narrate this story to put myself in the spotlight.
Instead, I wanted to testify to how much capable we all are to cause impactful changes in our communities without waiting for a “leader”; without expecting anyone to do the same; without assuming people would join our cause; and most importantly, without expecting a pat on the shoulder.
Why should I wait for anyone to change my community? It’s MY community after all.
Change should not be outsourced to a group of people
A few decades ago, it was fashionable for firms to talk about and engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR) to gain more acceptance from the public and hopefully to uplift their bottom line. Today though, it’s increasingly becoming a standard and the public is quick to punish a firm that deviates from its societal duties.
This is a good thing. Otherwise, corporations would take from society until they reach the abyss.
Still, we shouldn’t only police corporations. We shouldn’t police political leaders and stop there. We shouldn’t just police religious leaders and rejoice at the resulting change. We shouldn’t police our friends, parents, and strangers, then remain content.
No. We can’t simply outsource our responsibility to others in our communities: we have to begin policing ourselves too. It is our individual social responsibility.
Everyone is a leader. Don’t wait for another one to change your community
The great Leo Tolsto once said:
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
In other words, you can’t change the world without changing yourself. And changing yourself requires taking actions that you used not to take. It means doing things differently in your world first.
The next time you get angry at the level of poverty around you, become the government and subsidize a family’s meals. If you believe children’s education system is mediocre, elaborate a textbook and distribute it for free to your friends who have children. If you believe the mainstream media corporations are pushing their own agenda, by all means create a newsletter or establish your YouTube page corporation.
This doesn’t mean that you are allowing the government to ignore poverty. It doesn’t imply that people who manage our education systems should not be admonished for being comfortable with the status quo. It certainly doesn’t mean the mainstream media should not be kept in check.
No. It simply means you will not wait for others to act so you can observe the change you want in your community. You are informing leaders and everyone else that you will take care of the change at your level. And honestly, this is the most powerful tool at our disposal to manifest the tangible change we want in our world.