Sixth Course, Session 12: Mikhail Gorbachev & Sakena Yacoobi

Late last Fall, we were graced by contrasting lectures in different parts of the school on the same night. One by a world famous Nobel Laureate credited with ending the Cold War and the other by a humble largely unknown woman working tirelessly for the rights of children and women in one of the hardest places in the world.

Funnily enough, it was the second lecture that was more moving and more inspiring.

My friend Ejaj Ahmad wrote the following email to me, and because he echoes everything I felt at these two events, I’m going to let him write this blog entry


First of all, like everyone else at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), I, too, was very excited when I heard that the legendary former premier of Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was coming here to give a talk at the forum. I initially didn’t win the lottery and had to work hard to secure a last-minute ticket to the event. I went there with high expections. After all, this is the man who brought the cold war to an end and played a critical role in shaping the history of the 20th century.

But to my disappointment, I found his narrative to be rather average with a few moments of eloquence here and there. Students at HKS attend these forums to draw inspiration from world leaders but I did not find his speech inspiring. He took us through the history of cold war era and provided useful insights into understanding the role of nuclear power then and its role in the world today. But where is the vision for tomorrow? Where is the fire? Perhaps he had the fire during the 1990s. Perhaps recyled stories and empty rhetoric of the cold war era don’t resonate with people from our generation. Or perhaps my understanding of Soviet history isn’t strong enough for a deeper appreciation of his legacy.

Photo credit: Ejaj Ahmad

I must confess, however, that he handled the questions very well. Here we saw more of the man behind the politician. Some of his stories were compelling and I was especially touched by his faith in the international legal framework to ensuring global order. He made two appropriate comments on terrorism and the role of US as a superpower. The first was in order to fight terrorism we need to address the root cause of terrorism which is poverty. Using military might against terrorism is only addressing the symptom and not the disease. His second comment was about the US not trying to dominate the world and expanding its military bases around the world. Rather, the US should maintain its leadership position by engaging other nations and creating a more participatory global political discourse.


In sharp contrast to the Gorbachev event, I was totally mesmerized by our other speaker of the evening. Dr Sakena Yacoobi is woman of character, upright and honest. She came to HKS to receive 2007 Gleitsman Leadership award. What I found most inspiring about her story was the tough choices she made in her life. She could have settled for the easy life in the US after her higher education but instead she chose the path less travelled and went to Afghanistan to give hope to poor women who had no one to give them hope.

But I want to emphasize something in the end. We all come to HKS to be future leaders and we attend these events to refine our own goals in life. I think I have learnt a powerful lesson from the two events tonight. There are two types of leaders in this world – leaders who are driven by their ego and leaders who are driven by their heart. While history bears testimony that both these types can be equally effective in leading change, I believe that leadership from the heart is the way forward for a fulfilling life. I don’t by any means intend to look down upon Gorbachev’s achievements but I personally could relate more to Dr. Yacoobi’s story. The passion in her eyes and the fire in her voice was truly inspiring. She spoke from her heart and that gave her a different kind of credibility. It is what professors here call ‘authentic leadership’. Sometimes it is easy for us to get caught up in this ‘great man’ theory and start thinking in terms of great deeds and great achievements.

We shouldn’t just focus on great things in life. We should try to find greatness in small things and small actions just like Dr. Yacoobi did. You know a hundred years from now perhaps people will not talk about Sakena but I know for sure that her talk tonight has definitely inspired a few young women in the audience to take up the challenge and start working on pressing issues relating to women in poor countries. She leads by example. She has changed more than 350,000 lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last ten years. And she still has the flame alive. That to me is the story of a great woman.

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