Change leaders and the Nobel Prize

I watched the Nobel Peace Prize concert last night. The Norwegians know how to throw a party! I immediately fell in love with Esperanza Spalding’s music. And Natasha Beddingfield, who also performed, has been one of my personal favorites a long time. Anyway…

The Peace Prize is about making change happen. Each and everyone on the list of laureates have been instrumental in making this world a better place. Perhaps Obama was given the price more in anticipation of future deeds than already accomplished changes but many of us still have high hopes.

Big changes in the world seem to be associated with strong leaders and role models. It is hard to imagine the civil rights movement without Martin Luther King, the abolishment of apartheid without Nelson Mandela, or the democratization of Poland without Lech Walesa, all of whom have also received the Nobel Peace Prize.

So what does it take to become such a leader? Can we learn anything from the Nobel Prize Laureates? I suggest that conviction and perseverance are the main characteristics of these leaders. While some of them, such as Martin Luther King had a lot of charisma, others such as Martti Ahtisaari don’t strike me as particularly charismatic. (But like most Finns, he had that particular Finnish perseverance and stubbornness that we call sisu.)

In his book Good to Great Jim Collins actually emphasizes that charisma is not required (he says it may indeed be counter-productive) for leading and changing the successful companies that he studied. Instead Collins talks about the ability to keep the core values of the company and being there for the long term. He also believes that leaders should be “clock builders” rather than “time tellers”. He means that they should focus on building capabilities into the organization rather than insisting on becoming or remaining the visionary decision maker.

Indeed, many of the Peace Prize winners and other great leaders have left a lasting legacy. South Africa is well on the road to healing the wounds of apartheid. Mahatma Gandhi’s India is the world’s largest democracy and is rapidly becoming one of the major economic powerhouses. Poland is one the of the best performing former communist countries. And while the US still has its problems, it has come a long way since Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus for a white person.

My conclusion is thus that it probably takes an energetic and convinced person to lead big change. But that the person should at the same time down-play his or her role and focus on building systems and capabilities that enable the change to last. I wonder who is going to step forward as the leader of the greatest change project in the history of mankind, the mitigation of the global warming.


[1] Jim Collins. Good to Great.
[2] The Nobel Peace Prize 2009.

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