Leadership Lessons From the Uproar in Egypt

I assume you’ve been watching the news lately.

David Kirkpatrick, reporting in the New York Times from Cairo wrote, “Last Thursday, a small group of Internet-savvy young political organizers gathered in the Cairo home of an associate of Mohamed ElBaradei, the diplomat and Nobel laureate. They had come to plot a day of street protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, but within days, their little clique became the effective leaders of an opposition movement previously dominated by figures more than twice their age.”

“Most of us are under 30,” said Amr Ezz, a 27-year-old lawyer who was one of the group as part of the April 6 Youth Movement, which organized an earlier day of protests last week via Facebook. They were surprised and delighted to see more than 90,000 people signed up online to participate, emboldening others to turn out and bringing tens of thousands of mostly young people into the streets.” Later, more than 100,000 people showed up to demonstrate — and leading the way were these young adults who had put it all together via social media.

Two days ago, CBS News reported: “As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fights for survival in the face of rapidly growing protests on the streets of a country he has ruled with an iron hand, diplomats and analysts across the region are bracing for a period of growing instability. One Arab diplomat warned, ‘An unexpected turn of events is probably an understatement. Egypt is now witnessing a major political tsunami with consequences for its surrounding region.’”

“‘The young people are still leading this,’ said Ibrahim Issa, a prominent opposition intellectual who attended some of the meetings. And the older figures, most notably Dr. ElBaradei, have so far readily accepted the younger generation’s lead.”

Actually, what we’re seeing is a perfect storm of elements coming together — angry young people, the sour economy and the leadership they’ve been given. I’ve traveled to Egypt several times over the last decade. Our organization, Growing Leaders, has a base in Cairo. I’ve predicted this scenario for three years now, most recently in Chapter 9 of my new book, Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future. Our world is seeing a swelling of youth, populating so many influential nations. When the young people make up more than 30% of the total population (especially when jobs are scarce), this unrest is to be expected. Violence follows. German sociologist, Gunnar Heinsohn, has researched centuries of history and developed this “youth bulge” theory. Over the last 200 years, we saw it play out in Latin America and Africa. America got a dose of it in the 1960s when the Baby Boomers were young. Here’s what scares me. Today, 66 nations meet the criteria: A population where youth makes up more than 30%. Of those 66 nations, 60 of them are experiencing violence or civil war. 27 are in Islamic regions. Look at Palestine. Look at Afghanistan. Yemen’s mean age is 15. Do you see what’s happening here? We may be in for a rough ride, and Egypt is only the beginning. “I believe events in Egypt have a real chance of spilling over. It’s a volcano with real lava waiting to spill over,” one Pakistani security official said.

In addition, this kind of turmoil emerges when a youthful population is under a regime that only knows how to lead via “command and control.” I have friends in Egypt who’ve been intimidated and imprisoned because of their faith. Others frequently complain of being picked up by Egypt’s security forces, confined to illegal safe houses and tortured.

It’s déjà vu. Do you remember twenty years ago when communist regimes fell in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries? Half the problem was leaders who didn’t know how to lead except through intimidation and power. They didn’t listen. They didn’t know how to read and interpret the culture around them. Their egos blinded them to their followers’ needs or numbed them from even caring.

When economies are in such disarray, with fewer jobs available than people, we have a breeding ground for trouble. Much of the trouble in Egypt stems from the fact that the young have time to conspire — when they are not busy working.

There’s a lesson for us to learn from this. In the U.S., the Millennials (Generation Y) have just passed the Baby Boomers in size. We have a youth bulge again. As a generation they are brash and vocal. And, jobs are scarce. I wonder how we’re going to lead them, mentor them, connect with them, and prepare them for the future? No one enjoys following a dominant leader like those described above. Youth, however, wont put up with it. If they sense a leader is full of ego or emotional insecurities –they’ll leave faster than you can say “dysfunctional.” If it’s all about the leader rather than the cause — you can expect a demonstration of some kind.

When the squeeze is on, what’s your default leadership style? Are you out of touch with the young people you lead? Do they laugh behind your back? Do you get impatient and demanding? Do you digress to “command and control?” The need of the hour is leaders, teachers, coaches, employers, and pastors who know how to:

– Engage the young people under them.
– Create incentive for those who follow them.
– Inspire rather than insist on compliance.

What will you do to transform a potential demonstration into a conversation? The emerging generation can either be part of a perfect storm or a perfect story, depending on how we lead them.


Leadership Lessons From the Uproar in Egypt