Will, vision, commitment – and a thick skin – are the key ingredients to Muhammad Yunus' success.
By Katharine Esty
Si, Se Puede
I believe he will succeed because of one important quality he possesses – resilience.
In addition to the passion, the drive and the intellect it takes to get an innovative idea widely accepted, Yunus – winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the US Congressional Gold Medal – has the ability to pick himself up after failures, missteps and mistakes and go on to new and stunning achievements.
At the start of Yunus’ career, none of the Bangladeshi bankers thought microcredit was feasible and for years they refused to support him. Famines, yearly flooding of large sections of the country made banking in small villages extremely difficult, and, at times, impossible.
When he made a bid to launch a new political party, hostile government officials ousted Yunus from his role as managing director of the Grameen Bank. Today, government officials are alleging that Yunus owes large sums in back taxes. Those who know Yunus and have observed his personal integrity believe these attacks have no basis.
Yunus has remained undaunted by these and other challenges. He rebounds quickly from mistakes and failures and before long, achieves new, more stunning successes. Some might argue he was born lucky, endowed by his genes with brilliance, creativity and tremendous drive. But there have been thousands of intelligent, creative and energetic leaders who ultimately faded into obscurity when they met the kind of challenges and defeats Yunus has faced.
There are four patterns of action that undergird and explain Yunus’ resilience:
Resilience Pattern One: Staunch Commitment to Long-Term Goals
Having set forth his vision and overarching goal, Yunus sticks to these over the long-term. He truly believes that poverty can be eliminated and maintained this as his fundamental mission.
When I interviewed him for my book, Twenty-Seven Dollars and a Dream: How Muhammad Yunus Changed the World and What it Cost Him, he told me leadership is about “vision and transmitting that vision to your followers.” He added,
“A leader is the captain of the ship. The crew is frustrated. All they see is water. The captain says, ‘No, there is land out there. Let’s move on.’”
A leader, Yunus feels, might not know for sure what lies ahead but has to convince the crew that there’s land. They then believe, and follow his or her lead.
This approach is more than just convincing: it’s magnetic. People have been known to decide on the spot after hearing him speak to give up their careers and join him instead, thinking, ‘This man is on the right track. I want to work with him.’ Vidar Jorgensen of the Grameen Trust and Saskia Brustein of the Grameen Creative Lab both joined forces with Yunus after hearing him speak.
Resilience Pattern Two: Indifference to Failure
When Yunus fails, he moves on and never looks back. When it becomes clear that a venture has failed or he’s lost a battle, he shifts his focus to another project, another strategy for achieving his fundamental goal.
In 2000, when he realized that the Grameen Bank system that had been so successful for 20 years was no longer working well, he abruptly changed his tune and supported fundamental modifications, to the surprise of most of his employees. Upon learning that the Supreme Court of Bangladesh had prevailed against him in his fight to retain his position at Grameen Bank, he accepted the decision with grace and then turned his attention to his other businesses in Bangladesh and to supporting replications of Grameen Bank in other countries.
Just a few months after this ouster, I saw Yunus at the 2011 Microcredit Summit in Spain. He was relaxed, smiling and basking in the attention of the crowds. In his speeches and panels, he never once mentioned his dismissal from the bank.
Resilience Pattern Three: Alliances
Yunus has always understood that he can’t succeed without a team that shares his vision level of commitment. So he has allied himself with individuals who, time after time, have helped him remove the obstacles in his path.
When he was trying to make his Grameen Project into a legal bank, it was an old friend who suddenly became Financial Minister who was able to clear his path. And when he needed money to expand, he had friends at the Ford Foundation who could provide funds he could use if he needed them.
Resilience Pattern Four: Multiple Initiatives
Yunus lights many fires. He started over 45 companies in Bangladesh. Some of them, like Grameen Bank, and GrameenPhone, became wild successes. Others have failed; like Grameen Uddog, which makes hand-woven textiles, is barely making ends meet.
A classic entrepreneur, Yunus has thick skin and doesn’t dwell on his failures. He knows that to meet his underlying goal of ending poverty, he needs to take many initiatives. Now that his energies are focused on social business, he has created partnerships in Asia, South America and Europe. His partners include Dannon Yogurt, French water company Veolia, Johnson & Johnson, G.E. Healthcare, Pfizer and BASF.
The Right Stuff
I observed all four patterns of Yunus’ resilience in September when he spoke to a crowd of nearly a thousand entrepreneurs and students interested in social business at the University of New Hampshire. He didn’t say a word about the unsupportive Prime Minister of Bangladesh or the allegations against him. Instead, his full, prodigious energy was focused on what needs to be done in the world and how each of us can be a part of the solution to vast social problems.
It is this very energy, forward-looking vision and unfettered determination that today’s sustainable and socially-responsible business leaders need. A business case for sustainability can be a tough sell, and even tougher to maintain over time. But as Yunus has shown us and will continue to prove, where there’s a will, where there’s a vision; where there’s commitment and thick skin, there’s a way.
About the Author:
Katharine Esty, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and founder of Ibis Consulting Group, a leading international diversity and organizational development firm. A former consultant to the United Nations Development Program and UNICEF, Katharine has spent time in a number of developing nations, including Bangladesh, where she conducted a series of one-on-one interviews with Muhammad Yunus while writing her new book, Twenty-Seven Dollars and a Dream: How Muhammad Yunus Changed the World and What it Cost Him.