5 2019

It’s been one heck of a year for Greta Thunberg.

In August of 2018, the climate activist sat in solitary protest outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm. Just over a year later, many credit Thunberg with raising global awareness of the risks of climate change and holding the rich and powerful to account for their lack of action on it. In December of 2018, Thunberg attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland where she both addressed the Secretary-General and made a plenary speech. Thunberg’s speech went viral and has been viewed millions of times around the world. In January of this year, she addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In September, the UN invited Thunberg to speak at the opening of that body’s Climate Action Summit, where member countries who were signatories to the Paris Climate Agreement were expected to strengthen and accelerate their efforts to curb greenhouse gases.

As I write, millions of people, inspired by Ms. Thunberg, have joined the movement known as The Global Climate Strike. During the week of the UN Climate Action Summit alone, more than four million people gathered at 2,500 massive, coordinated events in more than 150 countries to urge their governments to act on local climate issues. Since then numbers have grown to well over 6,000 events in 170 countries. It is possible that this is the biggest environmental protest in history. That’s pretty impressive success at leading a global movement. Oh, did I mention that Greta Thunberg is 16?

I’m not here to talk climate change. First of all, that’s not the purpose of the column. Second, I figure that fire people understood that climate change was here long before most people in our societies took notice: we get it. I’m here to share my observations of a remarkable leadership moment. Thunberg is a Swedish student who, at the start of the 2018–2019 school year, began spending school days outside the Swedish Parliament, demanding aggressive action on global warming by the government. Soon, other kids around the world joined her protests and Thunberg started giving speeches to government leaders around Europe.

Greta Thunberg, leader of “Fridays for Future” and the Global Climate Strike.

The youth movement called Fridays for Future has since spread worldwide and involves hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren and Thunberg has become it’s leader. So what have I learned from young Ms. Thunberg about starting and sustaining a movement when institutional means fail us?

I’ve written in these pages before about what works to start a movement and, by now, I suspect most Wildfire readers have seen Derek Sivers’ three minute video, First Follower: Leadership Lessons from a Dancing Guy, or his TED talk How to Start a Movement. I still call Sivers’ video “the best three minutes you can spend on your leadership development.”

Let’s recall Sivers’ simple lessons from that entertaining video.

  1. While leaders often get the credit, it is the first follower who turns the person with the idea into a leader; there is no movement without the first follower.
  2. If you are that lonely would-be leader, be public and be easy to follow.
  3. Remember to nurture your first few followers as equals; make everything clearly about the movement, not you.
  4. We’re told we all need to be leaders, but on any given issue everyone being leaders would prove ineffective; the best way to start a movement, if you really care about something, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow. When you find a lonely would-be leader doing something great, like cutting school to protest in front of the Parliament building, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.

There it is again, that word, that idea … courage. I know I keep beating the “leadership takes courage” drum but the more I observe leaders, the more I understand its importance. Last issue I wrote about a high ranking elected official who I thought had demonstrated somewhat uncommon political courage, but Thunberg’s courage is of another sort. Put yourself in her place, giving a spur-of-the-moment speech to some of the world’s richest and most powerful bankers, investors, and entertainers while they ate their lunch where, according to reporting by The Guardian, she told them “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.” Similarly, in tough remarks to the United Nations Climate Action Summit she made clear that she believed that older generations have burdened her and her generation with extreme impacts, scolding UN delegates, saying “How dare you … You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.” Remember, you’re 16. Maybe you can picture your 16-year-old self speaking truth to power on the world stage, but I can’t.

Any student of leadership knows that, when one chooses to stand up and speak out against the powerful, that person needs to be ready for some very lonely moments; to be ready to attract unwanted attention, particularly since the emergence of the worldwide web and social media; and be ready to pay a price. And for Greta Thunberg the price is high, as Thunberg is no ordinary teenager and is very open about her Asperger’s syndrome, a milder autism spectrum disorder. Imagine the courage and inner strength it takes to address world bodies, to have your image and words viewed millions of times when you do not emote like most other people and you know that your leadership will bring on media scrutiny and all the meanness imaginable from venal haters including national and international “leaders,” spokespeople and influencers. Publicly, Thunberg has faced that scrutiny and disgusting hatred with incredible grace and poise.

Finally, I’ve learned from Greta Thunberg that in the era of social media, if one wants to lead a movement, it helps to be a social media ace and expert crowdsourcer. I was only marginally aware of young Greta and her movement until someone I follow began re-tweeting her daily tweets from a 15-day, climate-neutral sailing journey across the Atlantic to attend the UN Climate Action Summit, which served as a demonstration of Thunberg’s declared beliefs of the importance of reducing emissions. I love to brag on wildland fire incident management teams — who can bring a thousand people from all over the country and have them well supported in 24 hours? — but I cannot fathom what it took to mobilize more than four million individual people at 2,500 protest events in more than 150 countries.

So here’s to you Greta Thunberg, an inspiring young leader with the passion, courage and social media savvy to lead a movement in the 21st century. May you live long and prosper!

About the Author

Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Forestry Division. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.