She Leads Interview with Lhadon Tethong, a committed activist for Tibet and for social justice everywhere.

She Leads is a place to share stories about women who lead in their own unique ways and an opportunity for them to pass on their invaluable wisdoms to others. Following are edited excerpts of the She Leads dialogues with Lhadon Tethong.

Lhadon Tethong, for me, is magic. That is one word (amongst many) I would use to describe her. She challenges me, makes me think harder, and it is my honour to be able to call her my good friend for over 25 years.  She is a true transformational leader. In 2007, Lhadon made international headlines as an exiled Tibetan who boldly challenged the occupation of Tibet from inside China, posting real-time accounts of her travels through Beijing as it was preparing for the 2008 Olympics on her blog, — one of the first Tibetan blogs in existence. Her presence in Beijing drew the ire of the Chinese authorities and Lhadon was detained and deported from China. A renowned spokesperson on Tibetan issues in the media, Lhadon has also addressed audiences around the world about Tibet's occupation and the movement for freedom.

How would you define Transformational Leadership? To me a transformational leader inspires and guides you to see the possibilities inside, and to realize that you have the power to make this world or communities, or our families better – even one person’s life better. You have that in you.  

Who comes to mind when I say this? I have a personal reaction to this – John Hocevar – he was the Executive Director for Students for a Free Tibet [SFT] when I started working there at 23. He was a wonderful mixture of brilliant, strategic and humble. He was magically subtle in the way he led us. For example, he would speak last, and everyone else would go first in staff meetings.

What is one leadership lesson you’ve learned so far? The word ‘lesson’ takes me to the difficult and negative things. I think that without a clear goal, and flexible plan, you can flounder and waste time, energy, and people’s good will. Don’t take it as a given that people’s good will be there forever. Money and funding cause stress fractures. The sad reality is we need funding to do the work – so as activists we need resources, but they are not easy to come by – especially within the political realm.

As a female leader what are the opportunities and challenges you face? Within the Tibetan movement it is mostly male leaders – this is cultural and traditional. But with SFT, so often most of the grassroots leaders, and the ones making change at a local level – they are young women leaders. So, I feel like having the platform and profile I have had, I’ve been a good model in the Tibetan movement. I also have this dual identity of a Tibetan who has been raised in the west, and from a mixed marriage, and so I am treated differently.  I hope that by doing what I have been doing within the moment, and not taking no for a answer in my campaigning, that this has been good for the Tibetan world.

What is your daily leadership practise? (A leadership practise for me is defined as a leadership discipline that I do daily). The number one guide I have is the people inside Tibet. In moments when I am deeply uncomfortable, I go back to Tibet – as this is not about me. So often being nervous is about worrying about how we are perceived, but I know my work is about the people in Tibet and this grounds me. I also come back to my grandfather fighting battles in Tibet, with limited resources, to gain control of land that was taken away by Chinese warlords. The work I do is easy it is compared to what he did. I remind myself – this is not as hard as that.

What is one piece of advice that you would give to young leaders? (At age 22 Lhadon spoke about the power of youth in front of 66,000 people at the Beastie Boys’ Tibetan Freedom Concert 98 in Washington DC) I say this about love and life opportunities – never sell yourself short in love and work. Be willing to do the work – long hours, hard work – it is how you distinguish yourself. Go the extra mile for what you are passionate about.  In 1999, I left Victoria and went to New York – I can’t imagine my life if I hadn’t done that. […] You learn by doing. You don’t need 17 internships and 42 volunteer opportunities to prepare you to work in a given field – if you wait until you feel you know everything, you will miss out.

Photo credit to Alex John Beck.