Great leaders aren’t always people that were aspiring to be leaders. Sometimes they are people that do something inspiring and end up mobilizing others to do the same. Below are the stories of 5 inspiring leaders and the lessons they left us with.
Louie Silvie Zamperini, WWII veteran and Olympic distance runner
Zamperini served in the Air Corps during WWII. His plane was shot down and he survived 42 days at sea and about 3 years in captivity in Japan. He was tortured, abused and starved by the Japanese guards in the POW camps. All the while trying to keep the spirits up of the other prisoners. He was brought home when the war ended where he turned to alcohol to numb his pain and memories. After attending a speech by Billy Graham, Zamperini accepted his past and himself as a “new creation.” His fear and hatred of the Japanese guards dissipated.
Zamperini lived out the rest of his years as a Christian evangelist. He visited many of the guards from his POW days to let them know he had forgiven them. After all of the trauma he endured, he chose to forgive his captors so they could live the rest of their days in peace. Just before his 81st birthday he ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. He passed away on July 2, 2014 at the age of 97.
Lesson: Never give up, have empathy for those that have wronged you.
Mary Anita "Neta" Snook, Aviation Pioneer
Born in 1896, Snook was a pioneer aviator. She was the first woman aviator in Iowa, the first woman student accepted at the Curtiss Flying School in Virginia, first woman aviator to run her own aviation business and the first woman to run a commercial airfield. All of this because she kept trying to find ways to do what she loved, which was flying.
Snook was also Amelia Earhart’s flight instructor. They became friends and Snook encourage Earhart in her endeavors.
Snook later wrote an autobiography, I Taught Amelia to Fly. In 1981 she was acknowledged as the oldest female pilot in the US. She died at the age of 95. Snook showed courage and grit, she inspired generations of women to pursue careers and hobbies in aviation, including Amelia Earhart, one of the most famous aviation pioneers of our time.
Lesson: Push for what you want, just because no one has done it before you doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, Activist
Most people know the story of Rosa Parks and her refusal to move to the back of the bus for the white passengers. But did you know that Parks was a fervent activist and her actions on the bus inspired the black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year.
Parks activism began after she graduated high school, this was at a time when fewer than 7% of African Americans had a high-school diploma. Later she became the secretary for the NAACP and helped to investigate crimes against African Americans. She eventually attended the Highlander Folk School, an education center for activism in workers’ rights and racial equality.
Throughout her life she donated most of the money from her speaking engagements to civil rights causes. She eventually co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development and served on the Board of Advocates of Planned Parenthood. Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92.
Lesson: One person’s actions can inspire many, stand up for those that cannot stand up for themselves.
Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales
Most know of the life, leadership and years of advocacy of Princess Diana before her death in 1997. And most even know about the famous photograph of Princess Diana shaking the hand of an AIDS patient. But do you know why that photo was so famous and what it meant for the HIV and AIDS community?
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Princess Diana committed to advocacy on behalf of people with HIV and AIDS. This was at a time when the fear and misinformation surrounding the disease was astounding. The transmission of the disease was widely associated with gay men and it was thought that even touching someone with AIDS could pass the virus.
In 1989, Princess Diana visited the Harlem Hospital AIDS unit during a trip to New York City. She visited 10 patients with AIDS and was deliberately photographed ungloved and shaking the hand of an IDS patient. What she did was show everyone who saw that photo the fear and discrimination against patients was the virus was unwarranted. She single-handedly (pun intended) dissipated the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS and helped to move forward education, compassion and aide to those with the virus.
Lesson: If you have a larger platform, use it to inspire compassion, empathy and action.
Nelson Mandela, First South African President
Mandela was born to the chief of the Madiba clan and when his father died, he opted to go to school to become a lawyer rather act as the clan’s chief. Using his law degree, he helped to dismantle the South African apartheid system of racial segregation that was still in effect in the early 1990s.
Mandela was the co-founder of the first Black law practice in 1952. Throughout the 50s he traveled all over Africa to build support for nonviolent means of protest against discriminatory laws. He was arrested and imprisoned several times for his protests. In 1964 he was sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and treason against his country. In 1990 he was released and in 1991 became president of the ANC (African National Congress). He led negotiations to end apartheid and bring nonracial democracy to South Africa. In 1994, Mandel won the first elections and was sworn in as the country’s first president. In 1995 he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated human rights violations.
After his term he helped to form a group of international leaders for promotion of conflict resolution and problem solving throughout the world as well as the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Lesson: Anything is possible. “Where there is a will, there is a way.”