(This article was published by Harvard Business Review)
What does it take to be a corporate trailblazer? I recently found an answer to this question in an unexpected place — talking to three Afghan women in downtown Kabul.
The first woman founded a large Afghani news agency several years ago. Her home was subsequently bombed multiple times by those who would prefer that the country’s reality not be presented to the world. She has also escaped acid attacks and death threats. At one point, she decided to lie low and stepped down from her first organization. But she was too passionate about her vocation to sit idly by. Nine months later, she launched another media company, which has also flourished.
The second woman is a member of the Afghan Parliament. She explained to me the importance of steadfast persistence in the face of overwhelming opposition. Until a decade ago under the Taliban regime, Afghan women could not move freely and were banned from working with men. Today they hold 29% of the seats in their parliament — the highest ratio of female representation in the world — and stand alongside their male counterparts leading the country.
The third woman is a young housewife I met at Sahar Gul, Afghanistan’s first women-only internet café. The café was opened earlier this year by a local group called Young Women for Change and has been welcomed as a symbolic victory for a group long denied its rightful place in the public space. The woman told me that she was sold into marriage by her father to pay off his opium debt. But then she smiled confidently and explained that she was now using the internet to tell her own story and those of other Afghan women who remain oppressed.
The first woman had the passion and tenacity to ignore attackers, the second showed resilience and patience, the third had enough bravery to trust and to act. All three demonstrated immense strength in accepting the conflict and complexity around them and persisting in spite of it.
Eventually I asked them, “What makes you so strong?” Their responses were similar.
They told me that in the world where there are no precedents, you have to trust your own judgment. There are multiple ways of getting around each challenge, and a variety of consequences that can come from your actions. Scenario planning is impossible. So instead you simply move forward in the way you know in your heart to be right. That’s how you become a trailblazer.