With Brexit and then the US election leaving the Western world in a state of shock, 2016 was a year unlike any other in recent history. With the evolution of the 24-hour news cycle and global internet access, the way we see our leaders has changed dramatically. What was once a prerequisite of an effective leader is no longer necessarily the same, yet what remains unyielding is the importance of a purpose that defines them, for in the words of Gandhi: “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”

If you’re wondering, therefore, what purpose US President Donald Trump represents, you’re not alone. Whether by some hidden genius or pure luck, Trump has become the embodiment of change. Like many who have obtained a position of power, timing has played its part. Economic voting theory suggests that after a sustained period of economic downturn, voters simply choose the other option. It requires more, though, to explain how behaviour previously seen  as destroying one’s hopes of being elected to office has seemingly had no effect on Trump, and the answer is change. Whether good or bad, many find his lack of vocal (and Twitter) filter appealing; he is certainly not your average Glomar response (‘I can neither confirm nor deny’) politician. Although he’s still fairly new to office, Trump’s election alone will leave a legacy — that which brings about a review of a seemingly broken US political system that elects a candidate without the majority vote, as well as bringing attention to the media’s role and priorities in communication. 

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

“A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” – Gandhi

Perhaps the great irony of the 24-hour news cycle is that, where we now have the ability to engage with hours of unadulterated information, we are instead presented with an edited sound bite. Thus, a man like Trump who has ‘all the best words’ can influence the masses, whereas once only truly great orators could stand. While many come to mind — Lincoln and Churchill, for example — it is unfortunately Adolf Hitler who most famously brought the world to its knees with the power of speech. Watch footage of the Nuremberg Rallies to see how one man can bring a sea of thousands into rapture, or laughter, or complete silence. Hitler led with terrible purpose, the consequences of which may never truly heal. But it is in his failure that perhaps his greatest impact on the world was born: the European Union, created with the intent of eliminating the possibility of such a large-scale war ever occurring again. For the most part, it has succeeded, ensuring the longest period of peace in Western Europe since the Roman Empire. 

Disturbing comparisons have been made between the way in which both Trump and Hitler rose to power, an emergence of fascism foreseen by one of America’s Founding Fathers, James Madison: “Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged against provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.” No-one has been more vocal in bringing these warnings to light than Noam Chomsky, one of America’s most renowned dissidents. To be such a prominent member of MIT and at the same time so openly against US policies speaks volumes as to the unbelievable respect this man has earned from a career fighting against authorities’ abuse of power. He has famously remarked: “If the Nuremberg Laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.” His legacy, which he continues to build upon through his writings and activism, is one that reminds the population to question what we’re told and demand more from those elected to office who claim to represent our interests. 

Another who has questioned democratically elected governments and been branded a traitor for this cause is Edward Snowden. He may not seem like a leader, but this is a man who sacrificed all but his life for his purpose: to let the world decide how much of our personal freedom we are willing to sacrifice to ensure our safety. Despite operating since 2001, mass surveillance being conducted domestically and abroad didn’t lead to the prevention of a single terrorist attack, while all the while illegally monitoring millions of peoples’ phone use, internet history and metadata. Snowden, perhaps the most famous whistleblower in human history, had a desire that a debate be held about [!as!] “the kind of government we want, the kind of internet we want, and the kind of relationship between people and societies.” His legacy is an important one that will take many years to unfold as the changes begin to be discussed out in the open, rather than behind closed doors. 

Fast facts:
Perhaps the great irony of the 24-hour news cycle is that, where we now have the ability to engage with hours of unadulterated information, we are instead presented with an edited sound bite.

Sometimes people can bring about great change on the most unlikely of platforms, as was the case for Billie Jean King. Today, a ‘battle of the sexes’ in tennis is typically a casual exhibition match for charity, but in 1973 it was a gender-defining moment for women in sport. King came up against Bobby Riggs, former world number one, only a few years after women had been allowed to compete on the professional circuit. Her victory gave women everywhere a moment to stand up and be proud, at a time when women couldn’t even have a credit card without a man’s approval. But such was the strength of purpose in King that she would go on to open more doors for women, although not of her own accord. In 1981, King, who was married at the time, was outed as a lesbian by her long-term same-sex partner in a palimony lawsuit, making her the first high-profile female athlete to be exposed in this way. Not resting on her laurels as a pioneer in sport and sexuality, she would continue to campaign for women’s rights in grass roots sports, being awarded the Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2009.

Gender inequality is a 2-sided coin and challenges male identity in different ways. When we think of prominent men as pioneers for the gay community in music, names like Sir Elton John and Freddie Mercury come to mind; but in light of his recent passing, it is the supremely talented George Michael who is remembered. Initially, as a teenager, Michael’s fame in the 80s and 90s was global and turned him into a sex symbol. Much like King, it wasn’t of his own will that he was outed to the public as being gay, after being charged by LA Police in 1998 for ‘lewd’ behaviour. For all the stories of philanthropy that have emerged since his death, perhaps his greatest gift was in a 1998 CNN interview where he officially came out, saying: “I feel stupid and reckless and weak for letting my sexuality be exposed that way, but I don’t feel any shame, nor do I think I should.” In a world rife with homophobia, he gave gay men a role model who was comfortable being who he was. 

Fast facts:
In his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek states “Regardless of what we do in our lives, our why — our driving purpose, cause or belief — never changes.”

For some, the intrinsic desire to create and improve is so strong that it benefits us all. Steve Jobs was a man who achieved such iconic status for his success across a range of industries, his effect on those around him is described by former senior public relations manager Kevin Mallon: “Most of us who worked at Apple during the Jobs era shared the belief that the company really could change the world. It was Steve’s vision that guided that belief.” He helped revolutionise the personal computer industry. His passion for perfection and innovation helped steer Apple into becoming not only a computer company but a lifestyle company. It was his drive to improve upon the ‘now’ that helped Jobs overcome being sacked by the company he founded, that helped propel graphic animation to a point where many of the highest-grossing films of all time are animated, and that helped him reclaim his position back at Apple. In his lifetime, he changed the way in which we all live, and his legacy will be the foundation upon which many future developments are made. 

Today, society faces new challenges that call for different kinds of innovation. Taking over the mantle is Elon Musk, a man who has already done so much to change the way we live and whose new projects are even more ambitious.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX

His work at PayPal has made global commerce easier; his work with SolarCity is making solar energy a long-term viable option; his work at Tesla Motors is leading to a revolution of the car industry; his work at Hyperloop could one day revolutionise travel; and his work at SpaceX could open up the universe to humanity.

It is not just his innovation that is so impressive, but the way it is tackling some of humanity’s greatest threats. As he states in a TED talk from 2013, he’s motivated by “the problems that are most likely to affect the future of the world and humanity”, and from there he sets about solving them. Musk has endeavoured to revolutionise industries at great financial sacrifice in order to ensure mankind can continue to have a legacy of its own. 

Fast facts:
Elon Musk has endeavoured to revolutionise industries at great financial sacrifice in order to ensure mankind can continue to have a legacy of its own.

Sacrifice is something many of the world’s great leaders know all too well. Nelson Mandela fought a long, bloody and unjust war against a brutal apartheid regime in South Africa. Arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 1964 for his involvement with the African National Congress, he would refuse an offer of release in 1985 due to the conditions set by the government, stating in a response read by his daughter Zindzi to a stadium full of people: “Your freedom and mine cannot be separate.” He would be released in 1990, having served 27 years in prison, and he immediately began working towards a non-violent resolution. He would go on to become not just the first democratically elected president of South Africa but a global symbol of the ongoing fight against racism. The importance of his legacy is exemplified in the words of Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership Academy: “Mandela was one of my idols,” he said. “He showed us how a man with strong values, good and purposeful ideas about the future of his country and community, notwithstanding its past, could transform an entire society … he has been an inspiration.” Today, Mandela’s values are being instilled in Africa’s next generation of leaders. 

Since speaking out publicly against the Taliban and her near death, Malala has become a global symbol for the right to education, and in 2014 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala Yousafzai, Activist
Malala Yousafzai, Activist

For some leaders, simply being who they are is enough to change the world. For Malala Yousafzai, this was the case and she nearly paid the ultimate sacrifice for it. If Malala had been a regular schoolgirl still living in her small town in Pakistan, she’d likely now be married with 2 children. Instead, for actively speaking out against the Taliban regime in correspondence with the BBC, she was shot in the head. Miraculously, she survived. Her father, an educator, instilled in her a love of learning, and her purpose became clear early on. Speaking to the UN in 2013, she stated: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Since speaking out publicly against the Taliban and her near death, Malala has become a global symbol for the right to education, and in 2014 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest-ever recipient at just 17. She has gone on to travel around the world using her increased status to bring further attention to the suppression of children. Her ongoing legacy brings hope for a better future for children everywhere.

While the headlines often go to the most extreme and the most hateful, it is important to remember that any one person has the power to make a difference for good, and all around us there are people fighting and sacrificing for a better future.