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What we need to learn from the courageous

Career lessons from Day of the Girl, Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai - AFP Malala Yousafzai - AFP

This piece is written as a tribute to Malala Yousafzai’s win of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2014.

At age 16, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head because of her belief in the rights of girls going to school, her belief in women’s education.

Now, at age 17, Malala is the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Through her journey, we have many lessons to be learnt about courage in our work.

What is courage?

The word courage stands for the French root cour or coeur which refers to the heart, a symbol of love and passion. Courage and fear live in tandem in our pursuits.

As Nelson Mandela once put it, “Courage is not only strength of will but also strength of belief. It is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.”

Courage is called upon when our first instinct is to flee. It is about constructively converting all negative feelings of disturbance, frustration, vulnerability, intimidation, terror and anger in order to stay on course with our purpose.

Of course, it also includes the wisdom to know which battles to pick and which to stand down on.

Drawing from Malala’s journey thus far, here are some lessons on courage we can and should apply to our work and careers.


1. Be aware of what you stand for, and be a living example of it.

Malala: I don't want to be thought of as the ‘girl who was shot by the Taliban’ but the ‘girl who fought for education’. This is the cause to which I want to devote my life.

At work, we must be clear about what we really stand for and what we do not stand for. It is not about ‘doing things right’ but about ‘doing the right thing’.

It could be excellence, harmony, service, equality, learning and so on. At times, with competing and possibly conflicting values that we stand for, such as performance and discipline, we must also be discerning to pick the one we stand for most. The one that is most powerful.

Above and beyond what we stand for, we must be a living example of it.


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2. Be clear that your purpose benefits all, not just you.

Malala: Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow.

“Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human.”

When we decide what we stand for, we must be clear that it is not tied to a personal agenda, and instead, is something that is morally right and serves to benefit the organisation and world at large.

Malala’s purpose was so morally right that it was considered to benefit even her enemies who wanted to kill her.

In the face of her enemies she said: I will tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well. That’s what I want to tell him, now he can do what he wants.


4. Raise your voice when no one dares

Malala: When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.

There can be no real change through silence. During one of my training sessions on Emotional Intelligence, several participants argued that such powerful programs needed to be conducted for leaders as much as managers in order for real benefit to be experienced.

Out of all the participants who suggested the initiative, only one participant was compelled and courageous to voice the groups view. He made a massive effort to doctrine the core and benefits of the program before presenting it to the organisation’s CEO.

His appeal was for the program to be run consistently throughout the organisation, starting from the top. The CEO appreciated his efforts and bought into his view and now the program is run as a mandatory program for all in the organisation.

This was a guy who had the courage to take the first step in creating a “dent” in the way things were in the organisation.


5. Stay focused, not emotional

Malala: I don't want revenge on the Taliban, I want education for sons and daughters of the Taliban.

Always stay on course in the pursuit of your cause in the workplace. There will be people who will shake your beliefs.

There will be people who will make you feel like doing things that will eventually tarnish your reputation and confuse others as to what your main priority is. As you pursue any journey, do it with as much peace and dialogue as possible, as opposed to violence and revenge.

Malala constantly prepared what she would say or do if she was attacked again. Here’s a beautiful journey in her thought process as she made her decision.

“I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’

But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’


6. Remember that you are as entitled to practice courage as anyone else

Malala: My mother always told me, "Hide your face, people are looking at you". I would reply, "It does not matter, I am also looking at them.

In a country where we have the most number of title-ships and where organisations continue to work through hierarchical and dictatorial structures and systems, we must believe that at the core, we are all human beings entitled to rights.


I’ll leave you with a powerful question by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg: “What would you do if you were not afraid?”

Now, find a way to apply courage in this pursuit.


Hetal Doshi – Suhana Daswani is a professionally qualified organisational psychologist, certified professional coach, and the founder of O Psych Sdn Bhd, with an expertise in work performance, team dynamics and emotional intelligence. To get in touch with her, drop an email to editor@mystarjob.com.


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