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The richest leaders, the poorest women

Ritu Sharma
Ritu Sharma is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide , the leading organization in Washington D.C. advocating for U.S. policies that prioritize the needs of women and girls worldwide.

She has a second-grade education. I have two higher degrees. She can barely read and write. I'm working on two books. She had no encouragement or training. I have participated in more leadership seminars than I can count. Who is a better leader?

True leadership has nothing to do with education, eloquence or training. People can be taught to direct groups or manage organizations, but true leaders are born when extreme challenge meets incredible courage, usually under tremendous pressure, making the strongest alloy inside the people who transform our world--creating those with the right "mettle" to lead.

More often, they are not the CEO, CFO or C-Whatever-O. They are women working in coffee fields or behind sewing machines, moving themselves and their communities out of poverty. Generally speaking, the media does not portray women in living in destitute poverty as high-powered movers and shakers. But I can tell you that they are moving and shaking up our world.

Early this year, I was privileged to meet with the women leaders of rural Honduras who started one of the most dynamic coffee cooperatives I've ever seen, COMUCAP. The core group of founders began more than 20 years ago, in the hot house of Central America's civil wars and Honduras' banana hey day. They were poor, single mothers, with no education and no way out. But they had one thing: courage. They banded together, bucked the prevailing "machismo" culture, and saved pennies at a time until they could buy their first piece of land and start growing coffee. They now export more than 10,000 pounds of fair trade coffee to Europe each year and employ more than 100 other women.

Even women who are not running organizations like COMUCAP display extraordinary leadership. About a year after the devastating tsunami of 2004, I visited Sri Lankan coastal communities hit hard by the tidal wave. I talked at length with women who had lost their children, their husbands, and their livelihoods, and yet they had taken in between five to nine orphans each. They were still living in tent villages and finding ways to support their "families" despite the odds. If this isn't true leadership, I don't know what is.

These women of poverty--and so many others I've met like them--should be the ones on those inspirational leadership posters. I have learned more from them than both of my degrees combined. I tap these lessons every day:

Have the courage to keep going despite all the odds. Leadership is sometimes just about stamina in pursuing your goals. It might be one bad crop or one bad fund-raising year, but leaders don't give up.

Ignore critics, but listen to feedback. There will always be critics -- just tune them out -- but seek out and listen to people who can offer valuable lessons.

Live the problem, be the solution. Stay grounded in what the problems really are, but focus yourself on the solution. Many of us can sometimes wallow in our misfortune, but leaders solve problems for themselves and help many others in the process.

Go ahead, be a powerhouse. As women leaders we sometimes shy away from having and using our power. The women who lead in the harshest of environments do not flinch if they need to throw their weight around. They just do it and make things happen.

Take Mukhtar Mai, the young rural Pakistani woman who was gang raped and, rather than commit suicide, filed charges against her attackers and fought them all the way to the Supreme Court. Amazingly, she also committed herself to transforming her community by starting schools with the settlement money she received. God knows that took courage and perseverance, but it also took that rare alchemy of transforming a horror into a hope. And now Mai has been recognized as the true leader she is with numerous awards from Time Magazine to Glamour.

Our country and our world have been helped most by those who have taken a personal tragedy--poverty, the loss of a child, a rape, a hate crime, an accident--and used it as jet fuel to propel themselves towards solutions that stop more tragedies from happening. That's real leadership, and we're lucky to live in a world where millions of women show it every day.

My own leadership journey was not born of poverty, but of other challenges large and small. Some of the best training seminars I've had to hone my leadership style have been on dirt floors and grass mats. We should take these case studies to business schools to display the true meaning of leadership.

By Ritu Sharma

 |  November 11, 2009; 6:15 AM ET |  Category:  Nonprofit leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Mariano Patalinjug's comment is, one hopes, tongue in cheek and not, as one fears, snide or snarky. Ms. Sharmu, herself a leader and champion for justice, may have conflated the courage and raw grit of the women she portrays with textbook leadership theory, but this hardly matters. Her point is clear and clearly important. Leadership is what we do when we are called upon to be bigger and stronger than we feel is possible. What we admire in these women is they are leading us to a better world.

Posted by: JonathanCLewis | November 11, 2009 11:47 PM

Yonkers, New York
11 November 2009

Do I get Ritu Sharma's drift that as far as leadership is concerned her two advanced degrees count for nothing compared to the qualities she describes as "leadership" of the highest order of those poor and uneducated women who formed that successful coffee cooperative in Honduras?

If those women are really that good as leaders, is Ritu Sharma prepared to recommend one of them to be the CEO of General Motors, another of Chrysler, still another of Citibank, and, finally another of AIG?

Isn't it about time that Harvard close its much-touted MBA program?

Mariano Patalinjug

Posted by: MPatalinjug | November 11, 2009 4:34 PM

Thank you Ms. Ritu Sharma. This article is truly inspirational. Your article highlights a number of important issues associated with the characterization of a true leader. What a great read. This article has motivated me to rethink my approach when addressing certain leadership concerns in my own life. Thanks again.

Posted by: WillyMae | November 11, 2009 1:51 PM

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