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Opinion | The six leadership lessons you can learn from Greta Thunberg

Thunberg’s way of speaking in precise and measured tone reflects her clarity of thought

Thunberg during New York’s Global Climate Strike last month.
Thunberg during New York’s Global Climate Strike last month.

During the recent World Economic Forum Shape Eurasia conference in Istanbul, I met a group of high school students who led a workshop on climate change and explained why they decided to jump in to support Greta Thunberg’s call to action.

After the UN General Assembly (UNGA), there has been a big debate on Thunberg’s method and message for climate change. While a large section of millennials strongly support her ideas, there are some organizations and individuals who mock everything she stands for, including her speech mannerisms and supposedly hidden agenda.

While Thunberg might not be the first high-school climate activist, she is without a doubt the most effective one. She has become the face of a global movement of young people demanding that the elders safeguard their planet’s future. There are several reasons that explain her mass appeal.

First is consistency of message. Ever since Thunberg started protesting in front of the Swedish parliament, she has been clear about what she wants.

Second, non-alignment. The fact that she is not directly associated with any large organization empowers her to truly speak her mind. There are several advantages of affiliation, but it often entails going gentle on internal inconsistencies. While her detractors have tried to create stories around her intentions, nothing has been proven. Some have even tried to highlight her privilege of being the daughter of a successful opera singer and an author. Being privileged is not something she controls. At least, she is trying to channel her privilege into a mission she deeply believes in.

Third, diversity of thought. Thunberg has Asperger syndrome, which she calls her superpower. She believes her “neurodiversity" has enabled her to see climate change with a different lens.

Fourth, Thunberg’s use of humour. After her UNGA speech, US President Donald Trump tweeted a video of her with an apparently sarcastic comment: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!". Moments later, Thunberg changed her Twitter bio to “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future". With this, she not only won hearts of people around the world, but she also exemplified class and style that is often lacking in public discourse.

Fifth, effective storytelling and strong use of media. For the UNGA, Thunberg travelled to New York from England in a zero-carbon emissions yacht, along with a large black sail carrying the message: “Unite behind the science." She used symbolism to create a global discourse, a tactic not particularly new. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi constantly used powerful symbolic gestures to drive change. I’m not trying to draw parallels between Gandhi and Thunberg, but the core idea of Dandi March was to use a powerful image to unite people.

Gandhi was known to be extremely media-friendly. Legend has it that, during the Dandi march, Gandhi would walk faster when cameras were directed at him. Thunberg’s protest in front of the parliament or in Davos or at the UNGA has clear parallels with other global protests that yielded some results.

Last, her platform-based approach to inspire people and action at a global scale. She has created a global platform that transcends all boundaries of region and conviction.

You may like or dislike Greta Thunberg, but you can’t ignore her.

Millennial Matters recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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