Leadership Matters: Reflections from Rwanda

This time last year, I was humbled by the blazing dawns on Kigali’s eastern horizon, running in the mornings near the Milles Collines Hotel (Hotel Rwanda) and feeling the ghosts of the horrors that so recently had littered the hills and streets with bodies and body parts. I kept asking myself, “Where was I on that fateful day that the radio sounded the call for cutting and hacking and killing? What could I have done?” As a global community, when we awakened to the reality that had transpired, we said, “Never again,” and then again after each of the recent genocides in Somalia, Bosnia, and Darfur we again said, “Never again.” What is it that keeps us silent and inactive in spite of our best intentions? Is it that the reality tears at us with such gut-wrenching pain and the burden of empathy feels so unbearable that we need to escape our own suffering? Or that we would rather not look and listen if we perceive that we cannot act to ease the suffering of another, like Sara who was forced to watch her four children buried alive in a well, or Inez who was given the “choice” to watch her children be slaughtered by machete or kill them herself? Instead, we withdraw into resignation, which feels safer than helplessness.

Yet in the globalized world of the 21st Century, we can see our interconnection like never before. We are co-creators of this world, and every action and inaction has an impact. It becomes undeniably obvious that leadership matters. How we lead our communities, our organizations, and our lives matters: the colonial leadership that constructed ethnic divide among Tutsi (“owner of cattle”), Hutu, and Twa; the leadership within an independent Rwanda that inflamed ethnic hatred and fear with a hate campaign and hate media; the leadership of the international community (including myself) that chose inaction as over 1,000,000 Tutsi’s were brutally slaughtered in 100 days… And then the leadership of Paul Kagame whose revolutionary force defeated the genocidaires and declared in victory, “We are all Rwandans”; the leadership of the 56% of women parliamentarians rebuilding the country; the women in grassroots organizations like WEACTx working to heal and transform national trauma. Rwanda is a remarkable space of shared humanity, illuminating the greatest threats that we face and the most vibrant hopes for overcoming.

There is a gathering this weekend of World Pulse delegates, taking the time to reflect at the one-year anniversary of our journey to Africa where we convened grassroots leaders and heads of state to hear the voices of Africa’s hopes and needs at this pivotal time. As an advisor to World Pulse, which is a global media and communication network devoted to bringing women a global voice, I also had the privilege of being asked to conduct leadership training while I was there. In truth, I wondered what I could possibly teach. I had only lessons to learn. So on this anniversary I would like to share what I learned.

Above all, I learned from the people of Rwanda the resounding impact of inaction, and the power of individual small acts to alter the course of history. When we realize the profundity of our responsibility in the web then we are able to claim our power. The 21st Century, with its democratization of media, gives us so much potential to engage and activate our power. Having our congressional leaders on speed dial along with our dear friends enables us immediate communication to: “Take action to stop the suffering of innocent civilians.” Video enables us to capture images that stream and stir humanity to act by making resignation unconscionable. We can so easily take our global citizenship and leadership to new levels by:

What other actions or connections would you like to engage the RLI community to consider in service to the best of what’s possible for life on earth?