Hero: Elena Bonner

On June 19 2011, Russian Human Rights activist Elena Bonner passed away at age 88. Her legacy includes a long marriage to the famous Soviet physicist and dissident humanitarian Andrei Sakharov. But she was a force all her own as an activist, fighting for human rights during and after the Soviet Union’s brutal Stalin regime.

Bonner grew up when dissidence and criticism of government was discouraged, to put it mildly. She and her husband’s abandonment of their Soviet government positions turned the KGB against them and led to their banishment from the country. Even in exile, they continued to push for human rights even after the USSR’s collapse.

Bonner stood up for those who couldn’t stand for themselves, even when it lead to scorn, hostility and exile. Her heroic example reinforces a few key executive coaching lessons:

  • Elena Bonner had great respect for people of all religions and faiths. Learning how to practice tolerance and acceptance, and to foster cooperation despite different points of view, is important for those who want to grow as leaders and people.
  • Bonner and her husband took a lot of flack when they fought for human rights. Do what you know is necessary, even if it doesn’t make you popular.
  • No one sphere of life exists independently of the others. Thus, it is important for business leaders to support, and sometimes join, global and local activists who are fighting for positive change.
  • According to Bonner, “The most deplorable teaching is the superiority of any nation over another.” To put it another way, arrogance is a dangerous enemy. If you consider yourself entitled or superior, you lose your true power in negotiations and your actions may make things worse for everyone involved.

We can’t all fundamentally change the course of a nation’s history, but those who fight for humanity and responsible freedom over tyranny are powerful examples for all occasions.


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