A Real Leader in the Real World

This is the time of year that I am asked to re-enter classrooms and speak with graduating students about this strange and nebulous topic of leadership; one of the highlights of my year. I often refer to James MacGregor Burns and his description of leadership. In fact, his perspective appears to be as accurate today as it was in 1978 when he stated, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth”.

Yet today is a day that we have once again witnessed leadership in the “real-world”. After years of military rule, Myanmar appears to be taking a real step forward in transitioning from military rule to becoming a democratic state. Nearly two years after its first democratic elections (albeit fraught with irregularities), the streets of Yangon (and perhaps Naypyidaw) are filled with citizens celebrating the election of the leader of the National League for Democracy Party. This blog is not about politics, but rather the remarkable leadership of one individual; the person behind Myanmar’s transition. It is about the inspiring leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Courage of Leadership After nearly 50 years of military rule, Burma (The Republic of the Union of Myanmar) had a relatively peaceful, yet irregularity-filled election in 2010. These are still early days for a country moving slowly towards its democratic goals. It has one of the lowest performing economies in the world. The World Health Organizations ranks it as having the worst health care system on the planet. Human rights are few, freedom of speech lacking and child labor sadly extant throughout the country.

Yet, even with these dark realities, the sun must appear a little brighter today for the people of Burma. On April 1, 2012 Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Myanmar’s Parliament; a legislative body that is still controlled by the military-backed, Union Solidarity and Development Party. Indeed, these must feel like heady days for the woman who was one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners. Despite Suu Kyi living under house arrest for essentially two decades, she was able to persevere, return to public life in 2010 and today she is an elected official.

When we speak of leadership, there are few times when we can look outward and see authentic leadership actually occurring in the world. Suu Kyi joins the likes of Nelson Mandela and only a few other leaders who somehow have found the courage to lead in the most adverse of conditions. Today, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi must be thinking her father who negotiated the independence of Burma from British Rule in 1947; only to be assassinated later that year. Today must be a great day for a woman who has displayed remarkable leadership in the most adverse conditions. Although much is yet to be done, President Obama recently described Myanmar’s transition as “flickers of progress” while the Canadian government has recently offered Suu Kyi with honorary Canadian citizenship; the fifth person ever to receive the honor.

As I enter Algonquin classrooms over the coming weeks to speak with graduating students about leadership, the events of the past few days are indeed fortuitous. I will be advising students that they need to look no further than this small woman with a large heart and great courage who is living half the world away. Today is a great day to be speaking with students about what leadership really means. I would think that for at least this one day, perhaps James MacGregor Burns’s description of leadership has become a little clearer.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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