Planet Earth: Desperately Seeking Moral Leadership

It’s not every day that you get the chance to spar with a Nobel Peace Prize winner on how to make the world a better place, but that’s exactly what happened to me three years ago.

Tori Hogan invited me to sit on a panel she was organizing with Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who was 85 last week – aboard the MV Explorer, a ship sailing the world with hundreds of students aboard along with a dozen tech startups which I was invited to help mentor. I’d already had the chance to sit down with the Archbishop over breakfast a few times during my few weeks aboard, and soon discovered that his optimism and hope for the world was immense. I’m a little more cautious, and our slight differences of opinion came out early in the discussion.

Early on I made the point that we needed to be realistic, and that I thought few people really changed the world, despite this being a narrative common to the social entrepreneurship and non-profit sectors. History shows us that it’s far easier to make the world a worse place.

As evidence that anyone – even the seemingly smallest or insignificant of people – could ‘change the world’, the Archbishop brought up the example of Rosa Parks, the “First Lady of Civil Rights” who, in 1955, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Alabama. There’s little doubt that her brave act was a significant event in the history of the movement, but I countered by asking if it had really changed the world? It more likely changed many people’s worlds, in the US, but even today significant problems with race relations remain.

With the state of the planet today it’s hard to be overly optimistic that any of us can significantly bend the course of history in a positive way – unless we’re realistic about what we hope to achieve. With much of the world becoming overly inward looking, and with nationalism on the rise, the environment necessary for kindness and empathy to turn into any meaningful positive action at any scale is becoming smaller by the day. Any impact any of us may have in helping stricken people in Syria, for example, pales into insignificance when compared to the large scale suffering the Putin and Assad regimes are inflicting on the innocent people there.

Of course, none of this means we shouldn’t try. I often get asked during talks, interviews or casual conversations whether I’m optimistic about the future or not. As I reflect on my work during this, my 50th year on the planet, I’m left wondering whether I’ve achieved all the things I set out to when I ventured on my ‘rebirth’ twenty-three years ago. Despite starting off with the sole objective of trying to be a good person, and to do what I could when I saw wrongdoing, I can’t help but wonder whether or not I’ve made much of a dent, and whether or not it even matters. People are still suffering on a monumental scale – either in silence or on the front pages of our national newspapers. While those I have helped that I know of now count as friends, that number is in single figures. Maybe if we all set our sites a little lower, and focused on doing good at a more modest level, far more could be achieved. Despite this, we live in a sector obsessed with scale. In reality, very little ends up scaling.

If that’s the case, maybe the Archbishop was right about thinking small after all.

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Much of what we discussed in our panel discussion echoes much of what I write and speak about today – take an interest, ask questions, be angry at wrongs you see, do your little bit of good where you are – and dream of changing the world. There’s a lot more on this on the Everyday Problems website and in my forthcoming TEDxMunich talk.

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