Leadership Stories

Oscar Romero

On February 23, 1997, a priest named Oscar Romero was installed as Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador. His appointment dismayed a number of his fellow priests and delighted the repressive governing regime. Romero was known as a conservative and both the government and reform minded priests thought he would remain silent on the human rights abuses that were occurring throughout the country.

Romero soon proved them wrong. During his priesthood he had spent time with the campesinos (peasant farmers) that made up his congregations and his attitude to politics changed. He saw the ways power and wealth were manipulated to the advantage of a small group of families. For the poor majority this issued in hunger, children dying because their parents could not afford medicines, and extreme violence, including beatings, rape and murder, when they dared object.

Two weeks after his installation, Archbishop Romero’s friend, Rutilio Grande, was murdered by the paramilitary. Grande had been creating self-reliance groups among the campesinos and was seen to challenge the status quo. Romero demanded the Government investigate the murder, but his demand was met with silence.

From this point on Romero’s opposition to State sanctioned injustice became increasingly vocal. He used his masses, his public speeches, his Sunday sermons that were broadcast by radio, and both public and private correspondence, to denounce the exploitation of the poor and the violence against those who opposed injustice. He publicly reported injustices and called for reform of the political and economic institutions which entrenched violence and injustice. He refused to officiate or appear at Government events, knowing that would be seen as endorsing the State. When the Government refused to investigate its crimes, Romero established his own investigative tribunal to bring the crimes to light. Romero became an outspoken advocate for justice.

Romero had got in the way. On the 24th May 1980, as he was celebrating mass, Romero was assassinated by gunshot. Just moments before he had said:

We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.

The Monkey King

Once upon a time there was a kingdom of monkeys. They were ruled by a very large and very wise monkey king. The monkeys lived near a stand of mango trees which ran alongside a river and enjoyed a constant supply of these delicious fruits. One day the king noticed a castle being built downstream from the mango trees. He ordered the monkeys to gather all the mangoes from the trees. They dutifully responded, and collected all the mangoes bar one which was hidden behind a bird’s nest.

One day this mango fell from the tree into the river. The human king who inhabited the recently built castle was taking a swim when the mango floated by. He picked it up, and after learning from his Prime Minister that it was a delicious fruit, he ate it. So impressed was he that the human king determined to gain more mangoes, and set out with his guards in search of the mango trees.

When the human king found the mangoes he also found the monkeys. Though the monkeys were willing to share the mangoes with him, the human king wasn’t. Deciding he would have all the mangoes for himself he order his soldiers to pursue and slay the monkeys.

When news of this reached the wise monkey king he sadly knew that the day he feared had arrived. The soldiers chased the monkeys through the forest until they came to the edge of a tall cliff. The monkey king knew that if he could get his subjects across the other side they would be safe. But how to do it?

The monkey king took his huge body and used it to form a bridge between the cliffs. One by one his subjects climbed over him to safety. The king grew increasingly wearied and bruised, but knew he must hold on. As the monkey’s scrambled across their king grew ever weaker, yet still he held on. Finally, when the last monkey had cross the bridge, the monkey king collapsed.

The human king had witnessed the whole scene from high on the hill. He was so moved by the monkey king’s sacrifice that he ordered his guards to find a way down the rocky cliff and rescue the monkey king. The guards found him, barely alive, and brought him back to the king. The human king ordered his best doctors to care for the monkey king and waited from him to regain consciousness. When he did so the human king asked “You are their king, why did you bother to die for them?”

The monkey king replied, “Because I am their King”. And with that, he died.

Source: Adapted from a story from the Jataka found at “What Do You Think My Friend?” (www.serve.com/cmtan/buddhism/Stories)

Hillbilly Preacher

Being prophetic in leadership and preaching is challenging but it can also be transforming. Take the case of the once racially segregated churches in South Carolina, USA. One of the Baptist Churches there appointed a new preacher, who though very uneducated, understood the gospel. Most pastors would recoil at his preaching method.  For his first sermon he simply flipped the bible open and started preaching the words his finger landed on, Paul’s words to the Galatians that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. In 1950’s southern USA where churches were racially segregated the application was obvious, at least to the preacher. There shouldn’t be black churches and white churches, there should just be churches made up of black and white.

The deacons weren’t so appreciative of this message and demanded that their new preacher preach something different! The preacher did do something different – he fired the deacons and kept on preaching his message of racial unity. Many people left the church. His already small congregation became even smaller, dwindling to just four people. But then it started to grow, bit by bit, until it included people of all races.  One congregation member was a lecturer in English Literature at the university of Southern Carolina who would drive 70 miles to listen to this uneducated preacher. His reason? “Because that mean preaches the gospel.”

Source: Reported in Tony Campolo, You Can Make a Difference

The Emperor's Seeds

Once there was an emperor in the Far East who was growing old and knew it was coming time to choose his successor. Instead of choosing one of his assistants or one of his own children, he decided to do something different.

He called all the young people in the kingdom together one day. He said, “It has come time for me to step down and to choose the next emperor. I have decided to choose one of you.” The kids were shocked! But the emperor continued. “I am going to give each one of you a seed today. One seed. It is a very special seed. I want you to go home, plant the seed, water it and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from this one seed. I will then judge the plants that you bring to me, and the one I choose will be the next emperor of the kingdom!”

There was one boy named Ling who was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly told his mother the whole story. She helped him get a pot and some planting soil, and he planted the seed and watered it carefully. Every day he would water it and watch to see if it had grown.

After about three weeks, some of the other youths began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow. Ling kept going home and checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by. Still nothing.

By now others were talking about their plants but Ling didn’t have a plant, and he felt like a failure. Six months went by, still nothing in Ling’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Ling didn’t say anything to his friends, however. He just kept waiting for his seed to grow.

A year finally went by and all the youths of the kingdom brought their plants to the emperor for inspection. Ling told his mother that he wasn’t going to take an empty pot. But she encouraged him to go, and to take his pot, and to be honest about what happened. Ling felt sick to his stomach, but he knew his mother was right. He took his empty pot to the palace.

When Ling arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by all the other youths. They were beautiful, in all shapes and sizes. Ling put his empty pot on the floor and many of the other kinds laughed at him. A few felt sorry for him and just said, “Hey nice try.”

When the emperor arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted the young people. Ling just tried to hide in the back. “My, what great plants, trees and flowers you have grown,” said the emperor. “Today, one of you will be appointed the next emperor!”

All of a sudden, the emperor spotted Ling at the back of the room with his empty pot. He ordered his guards to bring him to the front. Ling was terrified. “The emperor knows I’m a failure! Maybe he will have me killed!”

When Ling got to the front, the Emperor asked his name. “My name is Ling,” he replied. All the kids were laughing and making fun of him. The emperor asked everyone to quiet down. He looked at Ling, and then announced to the crowd, “Behold your new emperor! His name is Ling!” Ling couldn’t believe it. Ling couldn’t even grow his seed. How could he be the new emperor?

Then the emperor said, “One year ago today, I gave everyone here a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds which would not grow. All of you, except Ling, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grown, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you. Ling was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new emperor!”

Source: reported in More Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks (Zondervan, 1995)

Why Desmond Tutu Became an Anglican Priest

All of us have heard of Desmond Tutu, but few of us will know who Trevor Huddleston is. Yet without Trevor Huddleston there may have been no anti-apartheid leader named Tutu.

Asked by the BBC to identify the defining moment in his life Desmond Tutu spoke of the day he and his mother were walking down the street. Tutu was nine years old. A tall white man dressed in a black suit came towards them. In the days of apartheid, when a black person and a white person met while walking on a footpath, the black person was expected to step into the gutter to allow the white person to pass and nod their head as a gesture of respect. But this day, before a young Tutu and his mother could step off the sidewalk the white man stepped off the sidewalk and, as my mother and I passed, tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her!

The white man was Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest who was bitterly opposed to apartheid. It changed Tutu’s life. When his mother told him that Trevor Huddleston had stepped off the sidewalk because he was a man of God Tutu found his calling. “When she told me that he was an Anglican priest I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a man of God” said Tutu.

Huddleston later became a mentor to Desmond Tutu and his commitment to the equality of all human beings due to their creation in God’s image a key driver in Tutu’s opposition to apartheid.


Source: This story has been widely reported including by Tutu himself in a 2003 interview with the BBC and in Tutu’s Nobel Prize ceremony.

From Humble Beginnings

For most of us who live in the West life would be pretty difficult without motor vehicles. They have proved an enormous convenience, and though a drain on the environment, an enormous benefit to us in many ways.

But it wasn’t always the case. The first ever “horseless carriage” was built in 1769 by a Frenchman named Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot. It was an enormous three wheeled, steam powered, gun carriage, which travelled along at the neckbreaking speed of 1 kilometre per hour.

At the time I can’t imagine many people saw that great a benefit in Cugnot’s horseless carriage. It was very expensive, very noisy, and it couldn’t match the pace of even the oldest nag. Yet from that horseless carriage came a revolution.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s OK to start small, with an idea that seems crazy, and watch to see if from that embryonic vision, something great might happen.


Source: Scott Higgins. Scientific info from Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s New Moments in Science #1

Collective Wisdom

I want to give you a scenario. You’re 22 years old – it’s already attractive to many of you isn’t it? You do well at school and head off to Uni. You work hard and do so well that even before you finish your uni course you land a plum job in a merchant bank. You work hard in your new job and life is looking pretty good. One day your boss calls you into the office and greets you with the words, “We’ve decided to terminate your employment. Your work isn’t good enough, you’re a bit too different and you don’t fit in with the others.”

That’s what happened to a young Australian by the name of Brett Kelly. Brett’s world came tumbling in on him. This was the first time in his life anything had gone really wrong. He lost his confidence in himself, lost all sense of purpose and direction, and slipped into a routine of getting up late, watching the Midday show and wasting the afternoon.

Then one day Kerrie Ann Kennerly turned Brett’s life around. Sitting there day after day watching the Midday show Brett noticed Kerrie Ann’s passion for her job, the way she so obviously enjoyed what she was doing, and gained so much energy from it. “That’s what I want” he said to himself – “that type of energy, that type of passion.” But how? Where could he find it? How could he learn to have that type of success?

He had no answers but he figured people who were successful in their chosen career probably did. So he made up a list of prominent people he admired – from rock stars like Peter Garrett, to political leaders like Bob Hawke and Jeff Kennett, to entertainers like HG Nelson. The idea was to interview them, discover their secrets, then publish the interviews in a book. When he got through all his interviews Brett was startled at what he learned about success. Brett had always thought that success in work and life would come from skill and talent and so he had chased qualifications, skills, and experience. What he found was that the one thing all the people he interviewed shared was the ability to build high quality relationships.

You want to know the title of his book? Collective Wisdom.

Churchill’s Vision

Winston Churchill was one of the great leaders of the twentieth century. Even today his speeches to the British people steeling them for war with the Nazis can send shivers up the spine: ”We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. . . . We shall fight on the beaches . . . we shall fight in the fields and in the streets . . . we shall never surrender.” ”Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’…”

Churchill was a man of great vision and determination, and from his story we can learn at least two things about vision:

  1. Staking out a visionary path is not always a matter of clear cut choices. At the same time Churchill was steeling the resolve the the British with his speeches, many in the governing circles were convinced Hitler could not be beaten and were urging him to abandon the war, surrender Europe to the Nazis, and maintain Britain as a small enclave of freedom.
  2. Staking out a visionary path often begins with wild and crazy ideas. A former officer of the Home Office, commented: ”Once a week or oftener Mr. Churchill came into the office bringing with him some adventurous or impossible projects; but after half an hour’s discussion something was evolved which was still adventurous, but not impossible.”

Source: Information reported in New York Times review of Roy Jenkins book Churchill, November 11, 2001.