5 global leaders share the best advice they ever received

A man stands during sunrise on Kreuzjoch mountain in the Zillertal Alps in Schwendau, Austria

5 leaders share the words of wisdom that helped them become the people they are today Image: REUTERS/ Dominic Ebenbichler

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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If the burgeoning market for self-improvement books is anything to go by, even the most successful and self-assured of us are open to receiving advice. The fact is, no matter how impressive one’s CV or incredible one’s achievements, everyone experiences moments of self-doubt, and encounters seemingly insurmountable challenges.

That was certainly the case for the five Young Global Leaders we spoke to. They shared with us the words of wisdom that got them through those moments and helped them become the people they are today.

Find a deeper purpose in your life
Mark Pollock, Head, Mark Pollock Trust

I went blind at 22. From an athlete, I became a young man with a white cane, unsure how to live my life. Then I came across Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s book about enduring hunger and brutality in Auschwitz, where he quoted Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

I began to race in deserts, mountains, across oceans, and on the 10th anniversary of going blind, I raced over 43 days to the South Pole.

Then in 2010, I broke my back, and my new life was shattered. Blind and paralyzed in a world that has failed to create a cure for spinal cord injury, I couldn’t imagine how I could live. But after spending months in hospital, I found a new reason to get out of bed.

And so I am on a new expedition with the Mark Pollock Trust, and our why is finding and connecting people working in science, technology, communications and finance to fast-track a cure for paralysis. It is a purpose so incredibly exciting that I rarely think about the hardship of the how.

See the good in others and give them a helping hand
Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary, Canada

I grew up in a family without much money, but with a lot of opportunity. My parents always reminded me, though, that no matter how little we had, there were others with less, and it was our responsibility – and our joy – to help wherever we could.

And we were helped by others: I graduated from excellent public schools; I spent Saturday afternoons haunting the public library; I was helped by a community that had a stake in me and in my success. And in all of that I learned an important thing: that all people matter, that people are smart, that people are inherently good.

And that is the core of my political and personal philosophy: when given the right information, people will do the right thing for themselves, their family, and their community.

In a political world too often guided by spin, where many leaders appeal to fear and hate and indifference, I try to remember that lesson. I try to appeal to kindness and community, and to the desire of every one of us to do what’s right – for ourselves and for others.

Own your mistakes – and try to find solutions for them
Aria Finger, Chief Executive Officer, DoSomething.org

You are judged less by the mistakes that you make than by how quickly, cleanly and transparently you clean them up. Think about Hillary Clinton’s email server fiasco. I guarantee that we would not still be talking about it if she had been transparent and apologetic from the start.

So, what should you do when you make a mistake? The advice that I was given came in three parts:

Own up to it. Nothing dissolves a potentially explosive conversation with your boss/co-worker/husband than immediately saying you screwed up and taking responsibility for that mistake.

Ask for advice as quickly as possible. Especially when you are early in your career, it’s easy to think that you should try to fix the mistake before letting anyone else know that it happened. Most of the time that instinct is wrong. Going to your boss or trusted mentor for advice right away shows transparency and can often lead to a better solution.

Be solution-oriented. Even when you seek advice from someone else, and especially if that person is your superior, come with solutions.

With great power comes great responsibility
Sony Kapoor, Managing Director, Re-Define

When I was little, my parents made sure I never got desensitized to poverty, suffering and injustice. They educated me about the difference in life chances arising from circumstances of birth. I was told that, in terms of the opportunities available to me, I was in the top 1% of human beings who had ever walked on this planet, and that with such luck came great responsibility. That gave me perspective and sent me down my path of fighting for equality of opportunity.

A Buddhist monk who I once met in the Alps told me that every week he asked himself: “Am I more of a person than I was a week ago?” and “Have I left things better than I found them?”

I internalized these questions and used the changing answers as a beacon to guide me on my personal development journey as well as in my professional fight for equality and justice.

Take on board advice – but make it work for you, and trust your intuition
Claire Boonstra, Founder, Operations Education

In my twenties, I was very ambitious, yet felt incredibly insecure, so I took advice from lots of people and really tried to live up to it all. That didn’t always work out too well for me – in fact, it frequently caused me to move away from who I really was.

Here’s an example: people often told me about the importance of “leadership experience” and that a team manager position would look great on my CV. It took me nearly 20 years to understand there was a difference between leading and managing. I am, and always have been, a very lousy manager. But I can still be a great leader.

So now that I’m in my early forties, I actually can’t think of one defining piece of advice I received that still makes an impact on me now and the work I do. What I did learn, though, is the importance of turning all the pep talks and recommendations into my own advice, so that it really works for me and the unique situations I sometimes have to navigate. And the best advice I have ever given myself is to go with my gut instinct.

If your intuition is telling you something isn’t right – even (or especially) if it all looks great on paper – have the courage to listen to it.

Have you read?

The Young Global Leaders and Alumni Annual Summit is taking place from 18 to 21 October in Tokyo.

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