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Courage When It Matters

By Birgitte Lange | Published: February 24, 2021

This month’s “good read” is an inspiring article from Birgitte Lange, Secretary General of Save the Children, Norway. It was published earlier this month in the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv. It was translated by Tove Irene Dahl, dean of Skogfjorden and board member of Save the Children, Norway. 

Leaders have a special responsibility to dare use their "outside voice" when needed.

I lead an organization that has an important social mission.  Save the Children's ambition is for all children in the world to survive, learn and be safe.  This is a very ambitious vision. To achieve this, Save the Children Norway, together with the global Save the Children organization of which we are part, of must work systematically and purposefully.

And we must be courageous.  We must speak on behalf of children—even when it costs money.  Even when it is not "politically correct/tactical."  This means, among other things, being a clear voice for children of mothers who have joined ISIS and demanding that Norwegian children have their independent rights fulfilled and are given the opportunity to return home to Norway.

Children around the world need adults
to advocate for them, even at personal cost.

It means speaking on behalf of children who do not have a voice themselves, speaking on behalf of children who have little of their basic human rights fulfilled.  These can be children of indigenous peoples, children with disabilities, children living in economic poverty, children living in war and conflict, children growing up without access to school, children who do not feel at home in their own bodies, children who are exposed to violence. These are the children Save the Children will work with and on behalf of, in order to ensure that all children survive, learn and are safe.

To achieve this, we must exercise wise leadership.  Courageous leadership.  Save the Children in Norway and the international Save the Children movement were founded by two unique, inspiring women who demonstrated just this: wise, and not least, courageous leadership.  They did what was right for children, not necessarily what was right for the ethos of the time.

A black-and-white photo of Eglantyne Jebb sitting at a window.
Eglantyne Jebb, founder
of Save the Children.

Eglantyne Jebb founded Save the Children in England right after the First World War and turned her attention to the enemy's children; thousands of children in Austria and Germany who starved, among other things, as a result of an extensive trade blockade.  This was highly controversial in England where many of their own children, even moreso after the war, were living in poverty.  Jebb was met with widespread opposition and criticism for wanting to help the enemy's children.  She was fined, imprisoned and her work was very controversial.  But she insisted that all children have independent, fundamental rights that must be fulfilled regardless of who the parents are or what the parents have done.  The children no one else wants to care for—those are the ones we have a special responsibility for, Jebb thought.  Jebb formulated the principles that would later be the start of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In Norway, Save the Children was founded after World War II by another courageous woman:  Sigrid Helliesen Lund.  Lund was active in Nansen aid during the war and was a very central person in helping Jews fleeing to Sweden.  She took personal chances, exposing herself and her own family to great personal risk.  She acted when others did not.  She did not allow herself to be controlled by what was "tactical."  She did what was right.  After the war when she founded Save the Children in Norway, she became involved with the German children—the enemy's children.  This too was controversial.  Neither of these two outstanding women was concerned with their own gain, celebrity status or 15 minutes of fame.  They were motivated by the mission, by what was important, by what was right.

Eglantyne Jebb and Sigrid Helliesen Lund are inspiring women, inspiring leaders.  They were driven by a strong belief in the cause, in the mission:  to save lives, to save children.  And, to ensure the fulfillment of fundamental human rights. They were willing to take personal risk; they acted actively and cared very little about "image."  They are guiding stars because they were so clearly driven by fundamental values ​​and a clear and strong conception of what was important.  It helped them keep a steady course towards the goal.  Not everyone should or can be like them.  Still, these two women remind us of what real leadership can also be:  willingness to go ahead—even when, or perhaps especially when, the costs are great.

A Save the Children volunteer provides hand
sanitizer to kids in need.

For those of us who are leaders today, courageous leadership must be understood in the context of our times. What does it mean for us to be a leader and not be concerned with our own gain or fame?

What does it mean to be too preoccupied with reputation and cunning, rather than the right thing to do? Should we expect a leader to be willing to take personal risk, financially or in other ways, to do the right thing? What does it mean in our time to take personal risk as a leader? What does it mean to do the right thing no matter what it costs in terms of opposition or loss? What does it mean to do "whatever it takes" to achieve an important social mission? What measures and what tools are we as leaders willing to use to achieve fundamental improvements and ambitious results?

Save the Children's founder Eglantyne Jebb formulated the challenge 100 years ago: "The world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative and very busy." This means, among other things, that leaders have a special responsibility to dare to use their "outside voice" when needed, dare to set ambitious goals on behalf of their organization’s vision, and, when it truly matters, dare to be courageous.

About the Author

Headshot of Birgitte Lange, a white woman with blonde hair, glasses, and a red vest

Birgitte Lange is the CEO of Save the Children Norway. She has a background in political science and has held many senior management positions, e.g. as Deputy Director General of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration and Director General in the Ministry of Culture. She has worked for several years on child welfare issues, both at ministerial level and in another NGO. Birgitte Lange is the author of several books and is a columnist on management issues in the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv.

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