There are so many leaders around us that we don’t see

In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, US journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon recounts the story of Kamila Sidiqi, an entrepreneurial young woman in Afghanistan who built a business to hold her family home together under Taliban rule.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

In Ashley's War: The untold story of a team of women soldiers on the special ops battlefield, Lemmon chronicles the story of 20 women recruited for a pilot programme of the US Army Special Operations Command, or USSOCOM, in which they carried out sensitive missions to Afghanistan alongside Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.

Both books, published in 2011 and 2015 respectively, celebrate heroines whose approaches to leadership and whose roads to success all too often go unnoticed: Women who, facing enormous obstacles under harrowing circumstances, manage not only to persevere, but also to create a legacy and a future for those who come after.

Under Taliban rule, the women and girls in The Dressmaker were not allowed to walk the streets alone and girls were banned from school. The heroines of Ashley's War were recruited to serve their country at a time when women were banned from serving in combat jobs in the US military. (That ban was lifted in 2013.)

Lemmon, today a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank, says she did not set out to write about women. When she first travelled to Afghanistan, in 2005, she was an MBA student at Harvard University looking to complete a project on entrepreneurship.

She was hoping to find people with stories about grit, resilience, courage and investment in community. Kamila, the protagonist of The Dressmaker, had all of those qualities, and then some.

So did Ashley White-Stumpf and the other soldiers profiled in Ashley's War. They were recruited to the Army's Cultural Support Teams, tasked with building relationships with women in Afghanistan, where conservative tradition prevented male soldiers from speaking with or engaging women. First Lieutenant White was killed in combat in 2011 when the assault force she was supporting triggered an improvised explosive device.

Today, Lemmon's focus has been on how entrepreneurial efforts in conflict and post-conflict areas across the globe can help to stabilise families and communities and foster economic growth on a national level.

This spring, she was invited to speak at the annual conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a non-profit group dedicated to encouraging US students to become global citizens. There, Lemmon talked of her own experiences overseas, beginning with a backpack journey after graduating from college.

"There's no substitute for first-hand, front-row seeing how the world works," she said at the NAFSA conference. "One of the biggest issues I see right now in this country is this 'otherisation' we have of people who are different from us. I love stories [because] they take people who look 'other' and make them look like us."

Women and leadership

Here, Lemmon discusses women and leadership with University World News. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Marklein: Kamila's efforts to mentor women and teach them skills in microfinance, literacy, and business have reached more than 900 people in her country. A Hollywood movie is in the works based on Ashley's War, and the book is considered a must-read by USSOCOM; this year it's included on the Commander's Reading List. Are Kamila and the women in Ashley's War unusual?

Tzemach Lemmon: Really talented leaders are always seen as exceptional. Somehow, though, when they're female we see them as aberrations. And oftentimes, when they're men we see them as leaders and role models. I wanted to put that in front of people and say, 'How do we think about this? How do we shape the way we see leadership?'

Marklein: Do women lead differently than men?

Tzemach Lemmon: It's a really good question and I don't know that I have the answer. But I can tell you that women lead. Part of what I wanted both books to do was shine a spotlight on the world (that most people don't) know and on people who were shaping their own future, serving a greater cause, risking their own safety. They inspire by being examples.

Certainly my mother and my grandmother were incredible leaders. They taught me by example the power of going to work every day; that you never give up, and that adversity is part of it. They taught me perspective. The values I'm fascinated by as a storyteller are the ones I learned from my mother and grandmother.

Marklein: What lessons on leadership can we take from these women?

Tzemach Lemmon: Kamila is both brave and a person of great faith. She really believed she was doing something for the greater good and her faith really did give her courage to keep doing this. She was also very smart about it. She made sure the young women who worked with her followed Taliban rules: never talk with strangers on the way to her house, no laughing in public, only communicate with men related by blood or marriage. She scheduled it so that there were never too many women at her house at once.

The young women in Ashley's War were recruited because they were women, but they proved themselves because they were soldiers. ... (They) were both fierce and feminine in whatever way that meant for them. They were intense but caring, kind and incredibly fit and fierce. So many times on screen we see women who live in one dimension. You can either be warm or capable. You can either be funny or smart. These women were incredibly good at CrossFit (a challenging workout) and loved to cross-stitch, and they brought that to war with them.

This is a story of friendship, of love, of service and of a team of young women who started as teammates, became friends and ended their time at the tip of the spear as family in ways no one else would ever understand. They lifted one another up and through the challenges of proving themselves, of being 'firsts', of contributing in combat, and they proved the power of letting your actions speak for themselves.

Ashley White herself was the kind of leader whom we see all too rarely: a young woman who did not have to serve, but chose to, who did not boast, but led by example, who never talked about how good or strong or skilled she was, but let her actions talk, a young person who always took the hard right over the easy wrong and who believed that the best leaders are those who elevate and find the best in those around them.

She was, as every teammate said, the "best of us", and she changed her teammates forever by never letting them see kindness as a weakness, by being effective and caring, and by helping them to see that leaders come in all shapes, all sizes. It is what is in their heart and their character that matters.

Marklein: I love how Kamila's story unfolds, first with wanting to help her family, then learning to sew and starting a business, hiring neighbourhood women to help when the demand grew, and then creating a training programme.

Tzemach Lemmon: Education is absolutely essential to building skills to helping people see (that our) shared humanity is much greater than what divides us. All of that, we see, in higher education... I went to business school to (explore) the power of business to transform communities, the power of a small business to keep people going at an incredibly difficult time.

Marklein: What role does higher education play in the lives of these leaders?

Tzemach Lemmon: Education was what everybody was fighting for in Afghanistan. Kamila fought for the right to stay in school when bombs and rockets were falling from the sky. You see in Afghanistan the power of education for educated young women and for young men who are really leading the way. You also see the peril of educated young people who have no opportunity.

In Ashley's War, higher education is where so many of these women came into their own. (Ashley, for example, graduated from Kent State University in Ohio. A memorial scholarship in her name is awarded each year to a female graduate of her hometown high school who shares Ashley's work ethic and passion for physical fitness.)

Marklein: How has higher education empowered you?

Tzemach Lemmon: I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from college, the first to go to grad school, to get an MBA. I was raised by a single mom who had two jobs, and who did not know people who had lots of degrees or advanced degrees. I had no choice (about whether to go to college). My mother really saw education as the great leveller. It's education that really showed me different worlds. It was for me not just an equaliser but also it gave me a leg up.

Marklein: What have you learned about empowerment, and specifically, gender empowerment, from these stories?

Tzemach Lemmon: It's about harnessing local leaders and unpacking their potential. Money is power for women and earning an income earns respect. You see that over and over around the world: The power of inclusion, of entrepreneurship and the power of education.

It's not really, to me, about gender empowerment. I don't even really know what gender empowerment means. But I know that there are all kinds of leaders around us who we don't see. These stories have the power to reshape the way we see leaders, the way we see heroes, the way we see risk-takers. If these stories can expand our view of who a leader is and where we find them and what they look like, well then so much the better.