Think leaders. There are Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill. Everyone who desires to lead may think that leadership is about status, power and affluence. Yet, not everyone can be one. Which begs the question: what unites them?
Leadership is a social influence, the ability of a person to unite a community towards a common goal. Leadership changes in history largely points to a change in beliefs – a desire to improve situations, disillusionment of current leadership and the embracing of a new mindset that has moved with the times.
The history of China consists of countless male emperors yet amongst them is a single female emperor. Despite strong misogynic beliefs, she defied the odds and made it into the history books. This woman is none other than Wu Ze Tian. “The most controversial woman in Chinese history” is what people call her. I learnt about her story when watching a television show. Wu Ze Tian wove her way to power with her wits and charm. She schemed and crossed massive hurdles to leadership. Her leadership was not planned. Instead, it was stemmed from necessity – a compelling need to change her fate after the king had died and her innate desire to improve the lives of women and the future of
Chinese trade. If you look her up, every website would suggest that she had not only left behind a legacy but a bloody one to meet her goals – a fervent conviction that had a price to pay. Some consider her ruthless while others applaud her for her unwavering vision. Amidst all the controversy surrounding her rise to leadership, there is something that can be learnt by modern leaders. When I was a student in research of leadership examples, I chanced upon her history. As much as I was intrigued, I acquired some valuables lessons in managing our fate, resilience and the importance of being knowledgeable even as a girl.
Ancient China was traditional and had many conventions set in place. There were strict expectations for women and they were expected to meet them with meekness or risk death. To become a female emperor, Wu Ze Tian had to overstep the boundaries. She broke rules that needed to be revisited and was bold to commit change. By recognizing what she wanted, there was a sense of newfound direction. It did not matter that no one had done it before or that not many agreed with her. She pursued her goals, persisted, and achieved them. The courage displayed encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone when I needed to move my teams as a student leader when I had to.
I spent years at school being a wallflower, wanting to be more involved in extracurriculars but never did. Even when an opportunity was thrown in my direction, I still did little to step forward. Finally, I convinced myself that it was time to step up. I joined volunteer programmes to help the homeless, became part of the school’s green initiative, and tried a new sport. I realised that we can do things differently. Many things that are being done are set by our predecessors. We do not question as they had been working the way they had been. As a youth, we have the capacity and time to make a difference and I want to embolden myself to make this change to society and to the environment.
Everyone knows the importance of resilience but Wu Ze Tian put it out there. She started out as a lowly concubine before she could get to where she was- an emperor. After the first emperor died, she was sent to a monastery. According to traditions and law of that time, all concubines of a deceased emperor were to retire to a temple where they would shave their heads and pray for his souls for the rest of their lives. That should have been the life of Wu Ze Tian. Yet, it was not. She defied the odds and did not succumb to fate. Before long, she managed to return to court.
As a volleyball player during my student days, I succumbed to a routine – it was all practice and drills. At one point, I wondered why my performance stagnated. Unlike Wu Ze Tian, I had no sense of what I wanted. For three years, I went through the motions, barely improving and making it.
So, during summer break one year, I spent nearly every day practising. Rain or shine. It was a personal regime that required discipline. Days turned to weeks and by then, things started to become more monotonous, I maintained a tenacious grit. We ignored the afternoon heat that bore down on us. Occasionally, the wind would grace us with its presence, sending the spinning ball off its tangent but instead of frustration, I changed my tact in the game. Any thought of giving up was driven away before they could take root in my mind. I had mentors and well-intended peers that would push me forward and the mere thought of proving that I could do it made it all worth it. At the end of the season that year, there was no doubt as to who was the most-improved player.
Wu Ze Tian reigned for 15 years, expanding trade and strengthening her empire till the last days of her life. While the legacy she left behind may be a matter of great dispute, she has undeniably influenced others in her lifetime massively and improved lives of the masses. Fast forward to today, I believe that youth can also make a difference to the legacy that we have already started to build.