THE BLOG

Passion - What the Leaders of Europe Could Learn From the Life and Work of Maya Angelou

02/06/2014 13:55 BST | Updated 31/07/2014 10:59 BST

The writer and activist Maya Angelou, who died this week aged 86, was an extraordinary human being. She overcame abuse and allsorts of hardships; she was an important figure in the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King among others; and her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, made her a spokesperson for both African Americans and women. In 1994 Bill Clinton invited her to read one of her poems at his inauguration, the first time a president had given a poet centre stage since John F Kennedy.

Maya's death came in the same week that voters across Europe expressed their disillusionment with how the EU was being lead by either voting for extreme anti-Europe parties or abstaining completely. It got me thinking about what it takes to influence people the way she did.

Since the European results, ashen faced politicians have earnestly spoken about the need for change, but they are all missing something critical, something they could learn a lot about if they studied the life and work of Maya Angelou.

Maya was part of one of the most astonishing cultural revolutions of the last hundred years - what started as the Civil Rights Movement and catalyzed a shift in western values that is still working through today.

What Maya instinctively knew, as did Martin Luther King, was the means to bring about change is not top down but from the ground up, and not by explaining yourself but by engaging with peoples hearts and souls.

This is where the European Union has gone wrong. Mainstream European politicians talk a lot, but the feeling they leave most of population with is a sense of frustration, boredom and resignation. They have forgotten what Napoleon said: "A leader is a dealer in hope."

Galvanizing people to make change, to follow a new path, is not of logical process, it is an emotional one. The terms 'vision' and 'mission' have become devalued in many places as they have come to mean words written on bits of paper in workshops or by PR professionals trying to spin while offend no one at the same time. A real vision though isn't a bunch of words, it is something authentic and real that people can and do connect with at an emotional level. A real mission is not a pithy statement but something that moves people to act.

The catalyst for change isn't what you say, it's how you make people feel. Maya Aneglou shared her pain, heart and soul. She helped shift the views of a generation, she gave people a new sense of hope and possibility. It's a talent leaders in Europe need to develop fast as it's something leaders of parties with extreme views are very good at.