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This article is one of a four-part series adapted from Les McKeown’s book, Do Lead, in which Les examines four ways in which anyone can start leading, by starting small; starting big; starting early - or even starting late.
At one point during ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland there was a particularly ghoulish succession of tit-for-tat murders.
One night an innocent member of one side of the sectarian divide would be randomly singled out and killed, and the next night, in retaliation, the ‘other side’ would even the score.
One of those killed was a 20-year-old student at Queen’s University in Belfast, who had the bad luck to be the last person to leave a church building late at night after a Girl Scout event.
While locking up the side door of the church in the pitch-black, wet night, a terrorist stepped up behind her, placed a gun to her neck and pulled the trigger. After three weeks in a coma, her spinal cord severed, Karen died.
Just one of over 3,000 senseless killings during that awful time – but one with a twist. The girl’s mother, understandably torn apart with grief, wasn’t prepared to be victimised by what had happened.
Seeking to understand how on earth something like this could possibly happen, she did the only thing she could think of – picked up the phone and called her local Member of Parliament.
Using his connections, she opened negotiations with the paramilitary organisation that had claimed responsibility for the shooting.
Weeks later, after a blindfolded trip in the back of a black taxi, she found herself face to face with the organisation’s commander (now a well-known mainstream politician).
Taking out her daughter’s bible – which Karen had been carrying at the moment she’d been shot – the woman started talking about her daughter, asking why anyone would want to see her dead. It was to be the first of many such visits.
Karen’s mother eventually built what became a lifelong relationship with the paramilitary commander, and she was one of those who encouraged him to engage in the cross-community dialogue that eventually birthed the Good Friday Agreement, which in turn ended the most egregious of the tribal warfare that had engulfed the province.
The mother, in her own right, helped co-found Prison Fellowship, a cross-community outreach organisation, and spoke at hundreds of events promoting the use of dialogue as an alternative to violence.
The girl, Karen, was my sister. Her mother, Pearl, was my mother. Pearl was, in her own telling, an unexceptional woman. A simple working-class housewife eking out a hard-scrabble living in a tough city.
But she did one thing that was truly exceptional (later, I discovered it was only one of many).
A time came when she could have cowered in grief, or lashed out in bitterness. Instead she chose to lead. To help an entire community achieve what had for so long seemed like a heart-achingly unattainable common goal.
I’ve made clear throughout this book that leadership isn’t necessarily heroic. But sometimes it is.
And if you’re facing that call – if there’s a wrong that only you can right, or a truth that only you can tell, then think of Pearl, and take the first step to make that happen.