Throughout my life, I have been guided by the stories of great leaders – the likes of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. The very lives of these larger-than-life figures are messages that keep inspiring millions of us.

There is an irony though. The lives of these people seem to us like epic tales of major struggles. But, when you pay attention to what they actually did and said, the message is actually that leadership is not about epic decisions – it is about choices we make in our daily lives. It is only in retrospect that they seem epic.

A story came to me that I want to share. It is one of the many stories Michael Ajeo Paul could tell you. Michael is an educator and entrepreneur from the city of Torit, in South Sudan. Last summer, in the midst of the ongoing civil war that is tearing the country apart, he happened to learn that soldiers were occupying a school in his neighborhood. Michael approached the commander of the troops: “I explained to him that barring access to schools destroyed the future of the whole community,” he says. “A community in which some of the soldiers had parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. They eventually agreed to depart. This was a great victory.”

Values and vision

Michael’s story is about true leadership – namely an attitude and behaviour of both responsiveness and responsibility. Michael is a true leader because he was responsive in taking an initiative that seemed bold at the time and he was responsible in consulting with other people involved before taking a targeted action. This is what we want to admire in leaders: a capacity for efficacy inspired by and expressing values and a vision.

Michael is one of the young leaders trained and supported through my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI). It was founded to empower young women and men to become agents of positive change in their countries and communities. I believe that young people, so often entrapped in destructive cycles of violence, have the passion and creativity to lead their communities down a different path, one of peace and sustainable development. If we channel their collective energy into a force for good, their sparks will create a fire that can drive out even the most impenetrable darkness.

Nurturing leadership requires delicacy and patience. We must be both enablers and incubators of talent. We train promising young people in a holistic mixture of skills that range from conflict resolution to project management. In places where internet connectivity is poor, we provide phones and tablets. In remote areas, we build community centres where people can access computers, library services and courses in literacy, computer skills and business. We work in camps for displaced people and refugees, encouraging young people to renounce violence and engage in peace-building activities, mobilizing sports and cinema to raise their awareness of the need for tolerance and dialogue.

With the years, and as these activities consolidate, I can see how the young women and men we mentor develop attitudes of leadership, their views on their lives and their communities becoming richer and sharper. They perceive that they have a stake, and a role, in making things better.

But we cannot ask them to be leaders only in times of conflict and crisis. They should be able to excel at the daily work of keeping peace alive through everyday actions.

This is why I want WPDI to be an incubator for their community projects. We provide tangible and intangible resources; they provide the ideas and energy. These projects can be strictly educational – our teams in Mexico teach conflict resolution to young people in schools and in prisons – but many are combined with a business component. Michael, for instance, is developing an agribusiness for which he will train and enroll young people from local communities.

Indeed, when we talk to young people from conflict-prone communities in South Sudan and Uganda, they tell us the problem is isolation and a lack of access to services. They tell us that youthful potential is lost to violent behaviour; that this is because there are no jobs, no socially rewarding activities. Most of them want to start up a useful business, one that addresses specific needs (we ask them to run market studies) and one that mobilizes other young people into taking up vocational activities from which they can earn an income.

Michael and all his peers from Mexico, South Sudan and Uganda have taught me a lot about leadership. Through their examples, I have grown aware that many more young people than we know have seeds of leadership in them. Many more than we know can surprise us.

What it takes to reveal such potential is, mostly, for us to place trust in young people and their capacity to shape their future and ours: championing leadership when you see it is the responsive and responsible thing to do.

Forest Whitaker is at the Annual Meeting in Davos to receive the 2017 Crystal Award for his leadership in peace-building and conflict resolution.