Back in December I started my new series of blogs about my idols – the first one was about the Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and her courage, daring and being “just”.
Now I’d like to introduce you to someone I was fortunate to meet in 2007 and who has hugely inspired me as a leader for their ability to initiate and lay the foundations for significant wide-scale change for future generations.
My second idol is Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian politician, a former president of the Soviet Union and the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party; perhaps one of the most controversial characters at the end of the Soviet Union.
You may be surprised, perhaps even slightly shocked, by this choice. He may be a polarizing figure but, in my view, Gorbachev was the precursor to the transformation that followed. In the world of politics and business, there are those that come before, those that are in the headlights and those that deliver day in and day out and for me, he was one of the great supporting actors.
Think of the following – Gorbachev, was clear in 1980 that a change in the Soviet Union was needed. His domestic policies – from ‘glasnost’ to ‘perestroika – and steps on the international stage contributed to the end of the Cold World and indirectly to the creation of new states and democratic society all around the Central and Eastern Europe.
He was not afraid of making decisions and driving changes. He made this clear when saying:
“If what you have done yesterday still looks big to you, you haven’t done much today.”
At the same time, he reminds us that although we should aim high, we need to be honest to ourselves when things don’t go as well as planned, and show humility. In his own words:
“Sometimes it’s difficult to accept, to recognise one’s own mistakes, but one must do it. I was guilty of overconfidence and arrogance, and I was punished for that.”
And, you always know a great leader by the enduring nature of their thoughts. When I think about the many international conflicts and disputes we face today, I’m reminded of this quote:
“There should be competition and exchanges between different countries, but there are certainly certain universal values, and that is freedom and democracy.”
So, although some people would only know of Gorbachev when you mention “the Soviet politician with a mark in shape of map on his forehead,” for me he is one of great leaders whose actions and decisions laid the groundwork for future change. As the Norwegian Nobel Committee commented in 1990 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the peace process he contributed so significantly to opened up new possibilities for the world community.
Everything that we have today – this world of possibilities – is due to our predecessors. As leaders, knowing how to build on what’s come before while accepting that the true outcomes of your efforts, especially during long-term business transformations, may not be realised or celebrated until you have moved on or stepped down, are essential qualities.
My meeting and discussion Mikhail Gorbachev was definitely an interaction I will cherish for my entire life – I learned immensely from better understanding his thought process and views on leadership.
So, I’d encourage you to look around – who are the great leaders you admire who have set events in motion and laid the groundwork for change, before handing over to someone else? What possibilities did they enable and why were these significant and important?