Real Leaders

Leaders of Hope: Muhammad Yunus

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

“Financial systems are designed in the wrong way, and COVID-19 has revealed their weaknesses,” Professor Muhammad Yunus told Indian Congressman Rahul Gandhi in July. “It’s time to make outrageously bold decisions that will create a new order where there is no global warming, no wealth concentration, and no unemployment.”

 The Nobel Peace Prize winner who proved the world wrong on micro-lending — by proving that people living in poverty are good credit risks — is now calling for a new system that includes informal and rural sectors to become valued parts of society. Beyond the latent innovation that he thinks lies dormant in developing countries, Yunus believes the next significant business opportunities are to be found among 10 percent of the world’s population who live on less than $1.90 a day. As the world gets poorer from the effects of a pandemic, his ideas offer economic hope to billions.“Any idea that solves a problem excites me,” says Yunus. “I’m always looking for new problems; you can never have enough.”

A persistent entrepreneur who has founded dozens of new initiatives, Yunus says we should ask how technology can be harnessed to help solve these problems. “Some of the best solutions can come about when you expose innovators to a problem and challenge them to solve it,” he says. “That’s when a fresh set of eyes will say, ‘Hey, have you considered doing it like this before?’ That’s when real innovation is born.

“If you don’t want to go to the moon, then you’ll never have rocket science,” Yunus continues. “The moment you have that ambition, space exploration and related technologies appear. While space exploration can seem indulgent while so many earthly problems still exist, experiments in space can help lead solutions here on Earth.”  What gives Yunus hope is that innovation can come from anywhere. Many expect great solutions to come out of Silicon Valley, but an equally good idea may emerge from a remote village in Africa. “Remember that Silicon Valley was founded on an investment network that happened to take root in San Francisco,” says Yunus. “The world’s best ideas weren’t already there; investors just became good at attracting talent to that region.”

Likewise, CEOs have already used their ingenuity and creativity to rise to a position of influence. “Use this creative power to start a small social enterprise alongside your existing company, explains Yunus. “Invest as little as $100,000 in a social problem and set out to solve it. Use it as a laboratory to experiment and share the results widely.” For many companies, this may simply be a matter of reshuffling existing assets. Repurpose your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or charity donations by instead investing in social enterprises that will help solve the underlying problem. Yunus thinks that times of crises are when leaders need to step up and offer hope. “A real leader is someone who represents the emotions, aspirations, and hopes of other people — those that cannot express themselves as effectively as the leader. Sometimes, it’s only when people hear a leader express an idea that they say, “Ah, that’s what we want!” They rally around that person because they see further into the future than everyone else and give followers a vision they can get excited about.”

According to Yunus, your authority will emerge because you are trusted, not because you tell people what to do.“Nelson Mandela was not a king, yet even after stepping down as president of South Africa after five years of rule, his voice was heard around the world for another 13 years before his death.”

Yunus is banking on human nature for a brighter future, despite billions of people being unable to express adequately what this may look like. He has already shown that trust and integrity can drive new markets and lift people from poverty. “How did we do that in Grameen Bank?” Yunus asks. “People were shocked. I said that we believed in people’s capacity to be honest. And they believed in us.” If risking vast amounts of money on poor people turned out well, imagine what other “risks” today might be reimagined — and turned into rewards?

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