It is not a revolutionary idea that you don’t need a large office or a fancy title to be a leader. After all, leadership is not a position you hold or the amount of authority you wield — it is much more about the difference you make.

It is also a journey, a steep learning curve that often comes with unexpected twists and turns. So we thought… Let’s ask experts and prominent community members who’ve been on their leadership journey for a while to learn from their experiences!

In 2021, Atlas Corps launched a series of virtual chats with external speakers representing social impact organizations in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. In a series of conversations, we invited our guests to tell us about moments that shaped their professional journeys and lessons they’ve found along the way. 

Below are some of the most memorable insights we have gained this year on our Leadership Journeys.

Exceptional leaders refuse to be defined by the barriers placed in their way

In partnership with Airbnb, a select group of Virtual Leadership Institute Scholars had a chance to talk to Paralympic swimmer Ibrahim Al-Hussein who shared his reflections on the power of sport in overcoming adversity, and the importance of challenging preconceived notions about refugees and athletes with disabilities. During a virtual chat with Atlas Corps’ rising leaders, Ibrahim spoke about the importance of positivity and shared his advice on turning every ‘NO’ into a resounding ‘YES!’ He also shared why it’s essential to believe in yourself and question the labels others might assign you, especially when it comes to your strength or potential.

Ibrahim’s story resonated with many of our Scholars, who found different elements of it relevant and applicable to their lives. I’ve played sports almost my whole life. I have spent years doing sports with people with disabilities, and I currently coach several girls’ soccer teams. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the role sport plays in my life and why I get so much joy from it. At the end of the talk, I asked Ibrahim: What is it about sports that you love so much? – tells Nicole, Hilton Humanitarian Prize Laureate Virtual Leadership Institute (Cohort 5) Scholar from the United States.

He answered that sport is an outlet for his negative energy and anger. When he practices sports, he experiences a balance in his mood and emotions. When he wasn’t active for a while, he felt suffocated. He couldn’t be around people until he had time to get that negative energy out. Since hearing that from him, I’ve thought about my relationship with sport and asked other friends why it is so meaningful to them. […] I still think about Ibrahim and his story a lot. – continues the Hilton Prize Scholar.

Those who could not relate to the swimmer’s story professionally found it inspirational on another, more personal level. I applaud his braveness and mental strength to move forward despite the severe trials that came his way. I can’t say that I have ever had something similar to Ibrahim’s experience. Still, I definitely take and continue to follow him as a role model in the future! He is an amazing person with an amazing story. I am sure to hear many bright and brilliant stories in the future from him. – says Elena, Russian-American Women Leadership Initiative (Cohort 4) Scholar from Russia.

My inspiration from the Airbnb Experience with Ibrahim is clear. No matter what you cope with, nothing should stop you from doing what you love. – summarizes Mamisoa, Cohort 3 Scholar from Madagascar.

Leadership is not a talent. It is a set of competencies we can learn, develop, and foster

In a live session with public sector professionals from Indonesia, Akhmad Firmannamal (Head of Subdivision for Public Relations at the Ministry of State Secretariat of the Republic of Indonesia) and Alimatul Qibtiyah (Professor of Gender Studies & Commissioner at the National Commission for Eradication of Violence Against Women), our guests shared their perspectives on topics ranging from, but not limited to, interagency collaboration, strategic use of technology and social media for governmental agencies, and incorporating feminist perspectives in policymaking.

During the conversation led by Atlas Corps’ Senior Program Director, Meredith Newmark, we are reminded that everyone can advocate for human rights and social justice for all. What is needed, however, are specific qualities one can choose to develop, such as awareness, empathy for other people’s experiences, and a strong will to empower others.

You must focus on leading yourself before leading anybody else

This year, one of the biggest news stories in the Atlas Corps community has been the appointment of the organization’s new CEO, Bidjan Nashat. Yet despite the impressive new title, in his first few months in office, Bidjan wanted to be known under a different name — the Chief Listening Officer. After all, among the core characteristics of a true leader, Atlas Corps’ top official mentions listening to those around him, courageously asking for help, and acting with emotional intelligence. 

What else can we learn about leadership from a self-proclaimed overachiever-turned-nonprofit-executive who has lectured at the U.S. State Department and the United States Institute of Peace? Why does he believe that existing notions of leadership should be challenged, or even changed? Listen to the Leadership Journeys interview with Bidjan led by Pearl Gahwera, Class 42 Fellow from Uganda, to gain valuable insights on leading with vulnerability and empathy.

Some of the most meaningful change happens at the local level

In our Leadership Journeys chat, Juliana Santos Wahlgren (Acting Director & Senior Advocacy Officer at the European Network Against Racism) — an expert in combating prejudice and dismantling structural discrimination based on race or gender — shares her insights on overcoming adversity and challenging systems of oppression.

Humble about her own achievements, our guest shares her admiration for local activists. She emphasizes that the most immediate change happens thanks to the inspiration and motivation of community leaders. These activists might not always have the resources but have the ambition to do things differently.

Significantly influenced by the Brazilian queer & feminist movement, the figure Juliana believes has not been recognized enough for her advocacy work is Marielle Franco, whose name gained international attention after her tragic death in 2018.

For more inspiration straight from Brazil, check out Juliana’s book recommendation — Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (it influenced many prominent writers and activists, incl. Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed — a revolutionary tool connecting theatrical arts and sociopolitical change).

Surround yourself with people who can both coach you and challenge you

As a top leadership speaker, lobbyist, and best-selling author of Find Your Fire, Terri Broussard Williams understands what it takes to turn a moment into a movement. Using both a pragmatic and inspiring approach, Terri has motivated people around the globe to introduce meaningful change in their organizations and communities.

Lucky for us, she is more than willing to share her perspective on advancing one’s leadership in her interview with Tinatswe Mhaka, Class 41 Fellow from Zimbabwe. In this Leadership Journey chat, Terri shares her insights on communicating your passion to others and becoming a fearless #firestarter. Who is that? As Terri puts it, it is someone who sees something others ignore and takes the first step to create change.

Speaking of incredible and inspiring people, do check out Tina’s novel The Men I’ve Hated and The Feminist Bar podcast for more contagious energy and unapologetic insights!


Title photo by Thom Milkovic on Unsplash.