The silent leadership: A small light in a dark room

8 November 2023

We get frequently asked about who we consider the most influential or best leader in the world. Most people tend to lean towards either a great politician, a humanitarian, or a businessperson. 99% of cases, unless specifically asked, we indicate a male figure. This is in line with historical patterns where the majority of prominent figures in the world have indeed been males.

For a few months now, I have been wanting to find a good female referent. There are many historical and contemporary female role models, each with their virtues and flaws. From Cleopatra's strategic alliances to Marie Curie's perseverance and self-confidence, and from Margaret Thatcher's determination and strong will to more recent figures like Angela Merkel, known for her strategic and influential style, and Malala Yousafzai, celebrated for her courage. They are all fascinating and worth studying, but they often fall into two categories: either exceptionally strong and resilient in every aspect or empathetic and committed to peace, working tirelessly for the betterment of humanity.

I recently watched “A small light”, a series made by National Geographic showing in the @Disney+ Platform. This series is inspired in the life of Miep Gies, a young female that helped Anne Frank’s family and other 4 jews hide during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Miep was inspiring and a natural leader that did not want to lead.

For those interested, you can find the trailer here.

Now, please take my findings with a pinch of salt, screen writers and directors are really clever in developing characters we can all relate to, so I am not sure how much of the character was real, and how much was made up.

Throughout the series, the character of Miep emerges as a woman of extreme courage, integrity, empowerment, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship.  She exemplifies leadership even when she saw herself as a follower. Though she considered herself an ordinary secretary who simply did what was right, her accomplishments were nothing short of extraordinary. Miep played a pivotal role in safeguarding Anne Frank's diary and facilitating its eventual publication. Subsequently, she devoted her life to preserving and sharing the stories of Anne Frank and herself, still relevant these days. One of her most famous quotes is “But even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”

I see a clear parallelism between Miep’s characteristics and those of a great leader. Why do I see Miep Gies as a leadership figure you might wonder? These are to me the key elements of this parallelism:

- Accountability: From the moment she took the responsibility to hide and support the Franks, she took it upon herself to make sure they were safe, trying even after they were captured

- Courage and Tenacity: Her perseverance, her courage, and her transparency, as they depict her in the series, shows the true leadership required to continue in the toughest crisis, she did everything in her hand at any given time.

- Stakeholder Management: Her style when connecting with others, authentic and appropriate, impacts the success of the Franks business in the early days, and saves her from a horrible fate at the end of the war.

- Support to others: She dedicated her life to supporting others and felt like a failure even though she never gave up on her attempts.

- Empowerment: She never wanted to be called a Hero and never wanted to be special, she wanted others to believe they would have done the same thing. She led and inspired many teenagers and young adults, particularly connecting with them, she was in her way creating other leaders.

One of the main reflections I gleaned from Miep Gies' story is that she took charge of what she could, endeavouring to make the world a better place during a very dark time, using the limited resources at her disposal. I believe Miep embodies the characteristics of many women in business – those who persevere, take ownership, and support others without seeking recognition, often referred to as silent leaders.


Salome Bowman