As we saw in the previous entry, a major turning point in Gandhi’s life occurred when, as a young lawyer in South Africa, he was removed from a first class train seat because of the color of his skin.
While one can certainly not deny the importance of this turning point event in Gandhi’s life, I would argue that it is not the experience, or the personal crisis, that makes the leader, or the hero. If the catalyst were the experience itself, we should wonder about all the others who had comparable incidents in their lives and never became the great leader that Gandhi became.
How many others had similar experiences? How many hundreds of young Indians, or others, had gone abroad before him and experienced similar types of discrimination or injustice? At that time, and in the environment of a South Africa firmly in the grips of apartheid, such discrimination must have been an everyday occurrence.
So, it cannot be a personal crisis that turns an ordinary individual into a hero. Rather, the key element is the way the individual processes the crisis or the life experience. Despite his modest career success to that point, Gandhi does possess remarkable self-knowledge, a deep understanding of his core beliefs, and the ability to reflect on the meaning of this particular event. He then turns this experience into a life lesson that he shares with others.
This is indeed the crucial point: Leaders do not necessarily have extraordinary events in their past. Rather, they develop an extraordinary ability to process the events of their lives, to understand their lessons, and to turn those lessons into stories of identity that reflect who they are and what they stand for. They then use these stories to inspire others. As the stories resonate with a wider audience, they become true leaders, people who influence others and change their worlds.
What I enjoyed so much about the stories of the CNN Heroes is that their stories prove that anyone can lead. The leadership decision is the same, whether we talk of Gandhi or of a teenager who sees injustice and decides to act. The Hero stories reduce leadership to something that is simple, straightforward, and accessible to all of us. It is just ordinary people processing their life experience in remarkable ways, taking their stands, and changing their worlds.