In May 2019, Greta Thunberg was on the cover of TIME magazine as a “Leader of the Next Generation” for her activism against climate change. This December, Madrid enthusiastically received Greta for the UN Climate Summit COP25, alongside more than 25,000 participants, including scientists, academics, and political and business leaders from around the world.
By now, Greta is widely known for starting Fridays for Future, the school strike for climate action that has engaged millions of young people around the world. She shines in her use of social media and digital platforms, and in holding (and making use of) the attention of media, world leaders, and the youth.
Few young people around the world have received so much recognition for their leadership. Of course, the recognition goes both ways. On one hand, Greta received the Ambassador of Conscience Award, Amnesty International’s most prestigious human rights award. Yet, she has also endured a wave of criticism – for example, former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May voiced her disapproval of Greta missing school in order to protest, and US President Trump mocked Greta’s emotional tone. But, the negative reactions have not dampened Greta’s status as a global icon for climate change.
As a psychologist and professor of leadership, I am curious to understand the secret that makes Greta Thunberg one of the leaders of the future. After watching her videos and reading many articles that praise her leadership style, I am most intrigued by how she incorporates her Asperger syndrome. Greta’s psychological profile is referenced often: at 11 years, she suffered from depression and was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome – a mild form of autism, which she refers to as a “superpower.” This, I believe, is an essential key to her influence.
Greta has transformed what is primarily considered a medical condition – a shortcoming – into a strength. She has embraced her uniqueness and used it against the lethargy of how the world views climate change.
So, what leadership lessons can we learn from this 16-year-old with Asperger syndrome?
Individuals with Asperger’s are often labeled as weird and rebellious because they have little regard for social norms. This detachment from convention frees them to think – and act – differently, which can come across as “thinking outside of the box.” In fact, the worst enemy of creativity is our addiction to social recognition. Innovators rarely ride with the herd, and Aspies (as they informally identify) tend to lack this need for recognition – and it can be a competitive advantage that helps them develop and act on creative ideas. As Peter Thiel has mentioned: “If you’re less sensitive to social cues, then you’re less likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you.”
Greta has uniquely questioned world leaders for their years of inaction on climate change. Her challenging of social norms has paid off with a notorious impact on the climate cause.
Lesson: Forget about the applause that might be waiting for you – think about how to solve a problem or reach your goal without considering the social recognition that you might receive.
People with Asperger syndrome tend to focus time and energy on one single interest and, particularly with conscientious personalities, concentrate on a unique cause. This tenacity and grit is particularly helpful in today’s changing social and business context, often called VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.) Greta puts extra effort, energy, and commitment into climate action. Adversity does not stop her and she uses every opportunity to back up her cause. For example, after Donald Trump sarcastically attacked her personally – something that would have emotionally deflated most people – Greta simply changed her Twitter bio to deflect the snarky comments of the President of the United States and described herself as a “very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”
Lesson: Stay focused on your goal. Try not to take criticisms personally and, better yet, turn them around to your advantage.
Purpose and Values
Individuals with Asperger’s tend to make decisions via “principle-thinking,” aka they follow their convictions and personal logic. Greta is both aware and forthright about her values. What’s more, she acts according to them. She does not eat meat or use planes. She aligns the climate cause with her own personal goals, and turns passion into purpose – and vice versa.
Being outspoken about her cause has placed her in a very prominent and very visible role. Being center stage gives her a voice, but it also attracts naysayers who claim that she is using the climate change cause for her own self-interest. In an interview with The Atlantic magazine, she is clear about that: “It’s hard to be the center of attention. I don’t like that. I have to tell myself it’s for a good cause. I am trying to say something with all this attention, to use my platform to do something good.”
Lesson: Walk the talk, whatever your talk might be, to improve the future.
Individuals with Asperger’s tend to take things literally, at face value and are thus more comfortable dealing with scientific evidence rather than political games and small talk.
For Greta, there is no distraction from her topic: the climate crisis. Her communication is based on scientific data and facts and she does not use the artifice of language to sway opinion. Her remarks at the 2019 UN Climate Summit in New York were direct and authoritative, albeit quite unusual for an adolescent: “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.” She does not mince words.
Lesson: Do not try to trick people into following you. Lead by being clear and transparent.
Amid the current crisis of credible leaders, there is a deep-seated need for authenticity. People are looking for leaders who are real people, who may have their own imperfections and vulnerability, yet are capable of gaining respect through actions, which always speak louder than words.
Greta has followers around the world. She leads a global climate youth movement that has inspired more than four million people to protest. She does not just say she cares about the environment, she acts on that concern; she gives up the comfort of air travel, taking a 36-hour train ride to attend Davos and crossing the Atlantic in a catamaran. Greta Thunberg is a genuine and effective leader.
Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence, was also diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. In the biopic The Imitation Game, we are reminded that: “Sometimes it is the very people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that on one can imagine.”