Young Leaders Challenge the Impossible

A few years ago, “Impossible” was a word I used often and with much enthusiasm as I debated back and forth with friends and associates over everything from politics to what we thought we knew about physics and time travel.

The real concern regarding this though is that much of what we debated we were able to cite as coming from reputable scientific journals or well documented studies.  Our positions, including my declarations of impossibilities, were often supported by so called hard fact and some of the top minds of this and past generations.  How smart we all thought we were, how logical and reasonable our arguments.

Now, a number of years later, it becomes more and more apparent every day how wrong we all were and how foolish I was.

Said in another way:

“Logic: The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.” Ambrose Bierce – journalist and satirist.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the One Young World Leadership Summit which was held here in Johannesburg.  It was a massive affair that drew 1300 high potential young leaders from 190 countries.  During the three day event these young leaders were invited to debate current issues on various subjects including Human Rights, Global Business, Leadership and Governance, Sustainable Development and more.

Was it just a bunch of privileged 20 – 30 year olds gathered together to spout hot air?  Some might think so.  Perhaps if I hadn’t been able to rub shoulders with these young leaders I might have thought similarly, but fortunately I was able to see first-hand what happens when 5 or 10 or 50 young minds are given permission and space to tackle issues we are globally all grappling with in one form or another.

In order to appreciate this more fully, let us explore a problem we are all faced with which is found in Bierce’s words above.

It is clear that the understanding we as human beings are able to develop is in direct proportion to the amount of truth we are able to expose ourselves to.

As the noteworthy business and management consultant Sean Donnelly relates in his book 10° to North:  “In May 1952, Roger Bannister became the first man to run the mile in under 4 minutes.  He was a medical student in England at a time when the old guard doctors and academics of the day believed it was physically impossible for a human being to run faster than 4 minutes per mile.   In fact, these doctors spent much time and energy trying to prove that their belief was correct.  (This is common practice by the way, with our beliefs.  We look for evidence to prove that we are right then try to defend and reinforce our belief) …Roger Bannister, however, believed it could be done and prepared and trained accordingly.  In May 1952 he was the first recorded human being to run the mile in under 4 minutes.  What happened next is the most important lesson.  Within two months, many others had also achieved this once impossible feat.  Do you think their fitness levels changed suddenly?  Maybe! But what really changed?  It was their mindset and belief…the critical thing is that whether a belief is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, we act as if it is correct.”

The problem with developing understanding comes in that “truth” seems to be changing all the time.  A few hundred years ago, it was “true” that the world was flat and if one sailed to its edge you would end up falling off.  It was also once “true” that the smallest particle of matter on earth was an atom and now we know of particles much, much smaller.

Science, which is supposed to be the observation of a chain or sequence of findings leading to a logical, reasonable answer or conclusion, is often substituted with a leap of faith in the mind of the scientist, to which he or she clings while attempting to connect the dots, or as Donnelly puts it, “to prove that [he or she is] right.”

And so “truth” is a moving target.  This really means that our thinking will always be limited and our full understanding thwarted.  In the words of Aristotle:  “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”

But what has this to do with leadership and what has this to do with 1300 young leaders at the One Young World Leadership Summit?

Here it is:  Gone are the days where academics and so called “experts” were able to dictate the pathway forward through dogmatic decree and heavy handed dismissive weigh in.

In a world that is advancing and changing every second their “truths” have become observations, not conclusions.  Where in the past the one eyed man was king in the land of the blind, more and more, there are no more blind.

Because of the availability and abundance of information at our fingertips, more and more people have an opinion.

And here is where it gets really exciting.  Older generations cannot but acknowledge that their thinking is limited – whether subconsciously or otherwise.  Older generations though not necessarily wanting to, in many cases still hold to the belief that a sub 4 minute mile is not possible.  It isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s just a matter of timing and exposure.  And so the input young leaders provide is not just important, it is essential if one has any hope ensuring the continuity of their business or cause going forward.

Said time and again in almost every plenary session held during the summit, this next generation of leaders in many cases don’t know the rules and so are not hindered by them.  They don’t see the barriers that exist in the minds of others, and so act as if the barriers are not there.  In following this course, they unlock solutions and find answers that seemed impossible before.

Is this just a theory?  Not at all.  The One Young World Leadership Summit has been convened for its fourth year now.  This brings the total number of ambassadors to roughly 4000 individuals.  Shared during the summit – the total, global reach of these ambassadors has impacted 8,5 million people around the world (and counting).

Across the globe there are businesses, charities, NPOs, NGOs, clubs, initiatives and more that are chaired and led by OYW 21/22/23 year olds who are overcoming incredible challenges as they drive their organisations and goals forward and upward.

And when these minds are put in the same room, incredible ideas begin to take shape.

Let me conclude with this final thought:

Michael Jordaan, while still CEO of First National Bank assisted them to be recognised as the Most Innovative Bank at the 2012 BAI-Finacle Global Banking Innovation Awards, beating 150 other banks from around the world in the process.

How?  It wasn’t by surrounding himself with older men and women who thought in limited ways and directions.

The average age of managers at some of the biggest, most progressive brands in the world is between 29 and 33 years old.

Like leaders at FNB, Intel, Microsoft, Google, Sony, and more, if we stop and listen to the rising generation, impossible may not seem that far away after all.

This article appeared in the





Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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