What, above all else, drives leaders to direct or redirect their lives, to tackle seemingly intractable problems, and to stay true to their values in the face of enormous challenges?

Patrick Awuah escaped life under military dictatorship in Ghana and left his home to attend college in the United States. He settled in Seattle, built a successful career as a Microsoft program manager, married an American, and started a family. He had left Ghana behind and resolved never to return. A few years later, however, Patrick’s first child was born, triggering a latent restlessness. He knew Africa would matter to his children, to the way they would see themselves, and to the way the world would see them. He began to think about going back to Ghana and knew if he returned it would have to be in the capacity of service. But what could his contribution be?

Patrick found the answer in education. He believed there was a causal relationship between Ghana’s traditional approach to schooling, which had roots in colonization, and the poor leadership he saw at all levels of the country. While he would ultimately go on to found Ashesi University, the premiere liberal arts university in Africa (now ranked first in Ghana and among the world’s top 300 universities in the 2022 Times Higher Education Impact Rankings), it took some time before he felt ready to act: “I was stalling because of fear of failure. But if I didn’t try, I would have failed anyway—so why not try?”

This is not a unique leadership story, but it’s an illustrative one, filled with exactly the kind of vision and stamina required to make change. Through our work supporting networks of leaders at the Aspen Institute, on whose board of trustees we both sit, and at our own organizations, Acumen and the McNulty Foundation, we have encountered hundreds of remarkable stories like Patrick’s, and we have had the fortune to meet, understand, and uplift ambitious individuals from all corners of the world. Some have modified their corporations’ missions to center social impact rather than just profit, while others have left the corporate world altogether to work in service of marginalized communities. Some are journalists who have stood up to death threats, autocratic regimes, and cultures of corruption to publish life-changing stories and reveal power-challenging truths. Some have come together from across backgrounds and beliefs to reimagine the systems we live within.

So, we asked ourselves: What do all of these leaders share? What drives them to direct or redirect their lives, to tackle seemingly intractable problems, and to stay true to their values in the face of enormous challenges? After reflecting on the journeys of these individuals, we believe we have found the common thread: moral courage.

We see moral courage as the single most important attribute that social change leaders can possess. Moral courage is the commitment to act upon one’s values regardless of the difficulty or personal cost. It inspires the conviction to take action with the clarity to remain constant in goals but flexible in method. Moral courage is a mindset that centers the internal conditions needed to make the courageous choice visible and to instill the confidence that it’s possible.

Equally, moral courage is the determination and resilience required to try and fail as you attempt to address some of society’s biggest inequities—to stumble and get back up again. It is to persist when everything is falling apart around you, to endure the trials of the arena not just for months or years but, often, for a lifetime.

Moral courage, we believe, is not something you are born with—it must be cultivated and developed. Through our work, we have seen practices that help to identify, foster, direct, and sustain this courage. The Aspen leadership programs and fellowships take participants through an intensive two-year process that aims to help leaders awaken and clarify their values, elevate their moral courage, and channel their leadership toward solving our greatest challenges. We have seen leaders go through that journey and emerge stronger, more effective, and more resourceful in their pursuit of social change. The process is rooted in transformation of self, and in turn, creates ripples that transform the communities, organizations, and systems in which they lead and live.

If we are going to make change on the scale of the problems that the world faces, we need more people to answer the call to act in the face of injustice. We need a movement of authentic leaders and sustainable leadership guided by moral courage. And we need a chorus of funders and supporters who recognize the tough journey that social innovators take and who will invest in them for the long haul.

Continue reading on The Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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