Opening Keynote, Global Young Leaders Conference
Washington, DC - July 12, 2010
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Good evening ladies and gentlemen, most especially to the delegates of the Global Young Leaders Conference. My name is Renjie Butalid and I am from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, a city that is home to one of the most famous and recognizable products in the world: the Blackberry smartphone produced by Canadian company Research In Motion. Now for my own curiosity, how many of you own a Blackberry? Well then, I actually own an Apple iPhone myself, but please don’t let that information leave this room, since I do have to go back to Waterloo after all.
It is my sincere pleasure to be with all of you here in Washington, DC this evening.
On a personal level, my presence on this stage is extremely humbling. You see, back in 2002, I was a 17-year old teenager who had just graduated from high school in the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East. That summer soon after finishing high school and before I went off to the University of Waterloo in Canada to earn a degree in Economics and Political Science, I found myself here at the Global Young Leaders Conference as a delegate. At the opening keynote, we were in a room much similar to the one we are in now and I was in the audience surrounded by a group of exceptional young people from all over the world, just like all of you today. Many of the people I met back at the GYLC, I still call friends to this very day.
And just so everyone knows, when I was a delegate at the GYLC eight years ago, I was a delegate representing India. Where are the Team India delegates in the audience this evening? Namaste.
And I remember all I could think of when I sat quietly and reflected, after having traveled thousands of miles to get to this conference, which was also my first visit to the United States of America, was,
“What am I really doing here?”
“Am I really a leader?”
“I don’t even know what it takes to lead, let alone, know what it takes to be a ‘global young leader’.”
Now, if you find yourself asking these very same questions at this particular moment in time, I will let you in on a secret that has taken me a while to discover.
That it is OK to be scared and uncertain, not knowing what to expect and to not have all of the answers all the time. At times, it is ok to even question whether you have the capacity and makings of a leader. I know that I’ve certainly questioned myself in the past, especially when I was a highly involved student leader at the University of Waterloo, where at one point, I had the responsibility of overseeing a budget of over $1.2 million dollars on behalf of 24,000 undergraduate students when I was on student government. I’ve also questioned myself on numerous occasions, most recently as a community organizer involved with a number of local community events back in Waterloo. But I prevailed.
What I have learned throughout my own leadership experience is to let that feeling of self-doubt and uncertainty motivate me and I would encourage all of you to do the same; there is after all, only a very small difference between excitement and fear of uncertainty. Instead of being scared, tell yourself that you’re excited to be here and open yourself up to the possibilities that exist out there in the world. There is a reason why you are all here in Washington, DC and will be in New York City, attending this global conference on youth leadership over the next ten days. This is an opportunity of a lifetime and I really hope that you make the most of it.
The fact that you are all here this evening tells me that you all believe in yourselves, and that there are people out there who also see your leadership potential and capabilities, be they your parents, teachers, guidance counselors, friends or mentors. There is something very powerful in the notion that someone out there believes in you. It is equally as important to have this boost of confidence at such a young age and this is one of the many reasons why I am truly excited for all of you in the coming days ahead. This is only the beginning of your global leadership journey, where you ultimately begin to believe that you are a leader; it eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now, in a world where the real and pressing problems of climate change, poverty and hunger, deforestation, peace and global conflict, water and food scarcity, conservation, overpopulation, human rights, and many more; where these problems are accelerating at a pace and level of complexity never before seen in history, it is evident we require new tools and approaches that will enable us to tackle these problems at their level of scale. If ever there was a time the world needed young people to step up to the challenge, to work together and find innovative solutions in order to tackle these complex global issues, that time is NOW. And that is why, standing before you this very evening at the opening of the Global Young Leaders Conference, where all of you will have the opportunity to discuss many of these problems in greater depth and working towards solutions in the days ahead, I remain hopeful, especially as a young person, who is not much older than many of you in this room today.
For I firmly believe that young people – us – have the power and the opportunities like never before to affect positive change in this world today. At this conference, you have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, to make new friends from countries that perhaps you never knew even existed, and to imagine a world of new possibilities as you begin to interact and work with people and organizations, especially those in positions of leadership on the world stage, such as the United Nations.
If you are willing to step up to challenge the status quo, with the firm belief that there is a better way to operate as humanity in the world today, know this, that you are joining a movement, which according to renowned environmentalist, social entrepreneur and author, Paul Hawken, describes as the largest movement the world has ever seen. In light of many of the world’s problems and challenges, this movement currently provides hope, support and meaning to billions of people all over the world. And again according to Hawken, no one really knows exactly how large this movement of tackling the most salient problems of our day, really is; all we know is that the action is taking place all over the world, in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refugee camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums. I would add conferences like the Global Young Leaders Conference into the mix as well.
I would also like to throw a note of caution for the young, intrepid changemaker however. Ric Young, one of Canada’s foremost thought leaders on social innovation, has forewarned that the real work of change is long and frustratingly slow, with these moments of transformation every now and then. Profound social change is not something that happens overnight, as the mainstream media including 24-hour cable television, would have you to believe. Nor is it something that is linear or predictable. Throughout history, we have seen that transformative social change – from women’s suffrage, to moving from an agrarian to an industrialized, and now knowledge-based economy – has happened and can continue to happen in the future; all we have to do, according to Young, is tap into the latent energy that exists in society, in communities around the world. There is no question that we all live and operate in this world, and that we do have some measure of responsibility and the opportunity for having an effect in it. It is not hard to convince people who have a leadership mentality that making a contribution now to the future is a significant thing to do. It no longer becomes a question of why, but how?
Now that I’ve given you an overview of the context of the world we live in and described some of the challenges that we, as humanity, collectively face, let me now say a few words about leadership, most especially servant leadership, and how these types of leaders enable and inspire others.
To use the often-quoted saying by Marianne Williamson,
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us… Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you… We are all meant to shine, as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Building on this, I now want each of you to take a moment to just think about the words “Leader” and “Leadership” based on your own experiences. What do these words mean to you?
Now that you’ve given this some thought, I would like to make the distinction between leaders and those who lead. Leaders, using the textbook definition of the word, are people or organizations that hold formal positions of power and authority. In short, these types of leaders are the ones who say, “I’m the boss and I’m in charge around here.” They also usually say, but not always, “It’s my way or the highway.”
On the other hand, those who lead, are people or organizations that do not necessarily hold any formal positions of power or authority, but are able to inspire and motivate us because they are driven by firm beliefs and convictions. We follow them not because we have to, but because we want to. We ultimately believe in what they believe and stand for, and eventually we take their cause as our own.
A great and very recent example of this was the election of Senator Barack Obama to the White House in 2008, where he was elected to became the first African-American President of the United States of America. The Obama campaign slogan of “Yes We Can”, ultimately spoke to the millions of Americans, especially young Americans, who came out in massive droves to volunteer for the campaign and to vote Obama into office. Obama’s presidential campaign at the time, spoke to the urgent need and desire for profound change in the country, and in the world. However, we do need to keep Ric Young’s warning in mind, the work of real change is long and frustratingly slow, with these moments of transformation that do not just happen overnight.
We also only need to look at the thousands of people who came out to hear Obama speak when he was out on the campaign trail, both in the United States and abroad, as an example of a leader who was able to inspire others to dare to imagine possibilities. To go back even further into history, we have the examples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi who led movements of thousands of people, based on the causes they believed in.
Obama, Martin Luther King and Gandhi are all household names and almost always come to mind when we think of great leaders able to inspire and motivate others. But how many of you have heard of Majid Mirza? Ruby Ku? Kristina Lugo? Nick Petten? And the list goes on and on. Chances are, you probably haven’t… yet. You see, they are all friends of mine, and in some way, shape or form, they inspire me for they are all working towards creating a positive impact out there in the world, both in Canada and as far away as Pakistan, Botswana, Malawi and Thailand, in ways that fulfill their desire to challenge the status quo.
Now, take Majid for example, an introduction to the term ‘social enterprise’ a couple of years ago led him to an internship with the Acumen Fund in Pakistan last summer, to work on their Micro Drip Project where he helped farmers in rural areas grow their crops in a sustainable manner. Social enterprise in this case, refers to a practice of operating a business model that has a positive social and environmental impact, while generating monetary returns allowing it to be financially sustainable in the long run. In other words, it is a new way of doing business where the bottom line is not solely how much money can be made, but what positive impact can we have in society in the process as well.
Of course, Majid’s story is similar to Ruby’s, Kristina’s, Nick’s, and the hundreds of individuals I know that are just like them. They are ordinary young people just like you and me wanting to change the world, doing what they do and inspiring others in the process. What I am trying to say is that you don’t need to be rich and famous, a great speaker, or even have the best hair, in order to be a great leader. Of course having the best hair always helps, but it is not essential.
French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, once said
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Going back to the Barack Obama example, “Yes We Can”.
Inspired leaders – those who lead – are driven by a cause, a higher purpose or a strong belief that there is, and can be, a better way of doing things. The traditional model of leadership involves being in charge, having the position of authority and power and being served by others. In the world we live in today and the complexity of the global challenges that we face, we can no longer afford to depend on the traditional model of leadership, where one person sits at the top and makes the decisions that affect us all. The good news is, this traditional model of leadership is giving way to the evolving concept of Servant Leadership, first coined by Robert Greenleaf in his seminal 1970 essay entitled, “The Servant as a Leader”, which suggests that true leadership involves humbling yourself and serving others. Other characteristics of the servant leader include, being trustworthy, self-aware, a visionary, empowering, relational, competent, having good stewardship and being a community builder.
Again, we follow these inspired servant leaders not because we have to, but because we want to. When you talk about what you believe in, you will attract those who believe what you believe, and right then and there, you have the beginnings of a movement.
Remember, always strive to be someone who leads, inspires and serves others.
And finally, now that I’ve talked about the context of the world we live in today and shared some of my key insights on inspired servant leadership, I would like to use the last portion of my talk to discuss humility and self-identity within the context of leadership.
Paul Saltzman, photographer for The Beatles and award-winning film director, has said that the concept of humility is “not about making yourself feel small but rather, understanding your size in the vastness of the universe”. To me, this speaks volumes in understanding how you see yourself in this world, let alone the universe, as well as to the concept of true leadership requiring humility and the capacity to serve others.
In the opening of my talk, I mentioned that I was from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, simply because I have lived, studied and worked there for the past eight years, and it is as much a part of me as my cultural heritage and background. In many ways, the story is a lot more complicated, as beyond simply “coming from Waterloo in Canada,” I do consider myself to be a global citizen given my background and history.
I was born in the Philippines to middle-class, hard-working Filipino parents, who decided to move to the United Arab Emirates when I was five years old, in search of new beginnings and a better life for our family. Growing up in the United Arab Emirates until I was seventeen, I was always unsure of my identity and where my place was in this world given that I was living in a foreign country. Was I Filipino who just happened to have lived-Middle Eastern experiences? Or was I Middle Eastern with a Filipino background? Two years ago, I became a Canadian citizen, so you can imagine the thoughts that were going through my head when I thought about my identity and where my place was in this world.
Now I tell this personal story of my background and my search for identity because I believe that it is important to know who you are as an individual and where you have come from, in order to begin to understand where your place is in this world and where you are headed in the future. Of course, this is a journey with an unknown destination, and going back to early on in my speech, it is ok to not have all the answers all of the time. I’m still not too sure where I am headed in the future, but all I know is that I am headed in the right direction and I am excited for it. Being with all of you here this evening in Washington, DC is certainly a clear indication of that to me.
To go back to what I believe in, I firmly believe that young people – us – in this day and age, do have the power and the opportunities like never before to affect positive change in this world. And if those opportunities somehow don’t exist, there is nothing stopping you from creating them. As humanity, we are more connected today than we have ever been in the past; we literally have the world at our fingertips. How many people here have Blackberrys and iPhones again?
I also only have to look at my friends Majid and others, as concrete examples of young people affecting positive change in their communities, to be convinced that there are better ways of doing things – from creating effective government policy and better business practices that generate not only financial, but also social and environmental returns, to ensuring education, healthcare, food and clean drinking water is available to everyone, most especially the world’s poor, the 1-2 billion people living on less than $2 a day.
As GYLC delegates who are about to embark on a shared journey together, embrace this opportunity of a lifetime, dream big and strongly believe that you CAN make a difference in this world.
In the words of William Shakespeare,
“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”
I wish you all the very best of luck. Thank you for having me. It has been a pleasure to be here this evening and I look forward to your questions.