Humanitarian Malala Yousafzai spent her 20th birthday this week in a refugee camp in Iraq to advocate for girls' education. Hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled their homes in Iraq are children--mostly girls--who are not attending school. This is the way a Nobel Peace Prize winner spends her summer before starting college.

Malala is on a "Girl Power Trip" (#GirlPowerTrip) to call attention to the 130 million girls who are out of school. Malala is a storyteller and understands the power of story to galvanize action. "I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls," she often says.

In my research into Malala and other leaders who start movements, I've learned that storytellers are often inspired by storytellers who came before them. Malala traces her courage back to the stories her father told her, especially the stories of Malalai, the warrior princess.

In the documentary, He Named Me Malala, Malala recalls listening to her father--a "passionate and emotional speaker"--tell her the story of Malalai, a folk hero, a teenage girl who had more courage than the men in battle. When the men retreated, Malalai "rose up to the mountain, raised her voice and said, 'It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for a hundred years.'" Malalai was shot and killed on the battlefield.

In televised interviews, documentaries and in her book, Malala has referenced that story as the source of her courage.

That's what stories do. They inspire us, give us hope, and encourage us to seek our own adventures. We see this trend in the lives of many inspiring leaders and entrepreneurs.

For example, in the authorized biography of Tesla CEO Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance, Musk tells the author that he loved reading stories and hearing stories in his youth. Musk recalls listening, "transfixed," to the stories of his grandfather, Joshua Haldeman, who had "a lust for adventure." Haldeman would pack his family into a single-engine airplane and travel from their home in Pretoria, South Africa, on trips over 22,000 miles across Europe.

"My grandmother told these tales of how they almost died several times along their journeys," Musk recalls. Musk believes the stories of his grandfather's exploits partly explain his insatiable desire for excitement, adventure, and his "unusual tolerance for risk."

Today, Elon Musk inspires a new generation to shoot for the stars, while Malala Yousafzai inspires a generation to stand up against oppression.

Show me an inspiring leader and I'll show you a storyteller who influenced the way that leader sees the world.

And that's why it's important to tell your story and to share the stories of your heroes. You never know whom you'll inspire.

Walt Disney once said that storytellers "instill hope again, and again, and again." Storytellers give us hope, and hope is a universal desire.

Published on: Jul 14, 2017
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