I'm not an eternal optimist. But my faith in the power of hope and courage is stronger than ever, thanks to leaders like Rob Stewart (shark advocate and creator of the film Sharkwater), Paul Watson (founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society), Jill Robinson (founder of Animals Asia Foundation), and Seth Godin (social-media guru and inspiration to leaders/heretics worldwide.)
Rob Stewart is leading the fight against the extermination of sharks senselessly slaughtered for their fins. If you watch one movie this year, make it Stewart's film Sharkwater - it will change your worldview.
Stewart, a professional photographer and lifelong shark advocate, directed the film, which is predicated on the fact that sharks are the keystone predator of the seas, and arguably the world: without them, populations of creatures worldwide will be put in tragic flux, and because the seas serve as the earth's thermostat, our own livelihood will be at stake as well. Sound alarmist? Good. Even though we rarely, if ever, see sharks in our daily lives, they need your attention.
Sharks have been around for over 400 million years, and were here roughly 150 million years before land-dwelling dinosaurs. Unfortunately, human desire for the tasteless shark-fin soup (mostly in Asia) - which has been proven to have no beneficial effects on human health - has decimated global shark populations to 10% of their historical levels.
Movies like Jaws and sensational headlines of rare shark attacks haven't helped this beautiful animal's survival, but people like Rob Stewart have. He's seen and fought the bloody slaughter of these creatures firsthand, and risked life and limb to prevent their deaths. (Literally - he nearly lost a leg to a flesh-eating disease during filming of the movie, and had to avoid the "Shark-Fin Mafia", which rakes in billions of dollars a year thanks to the trade.)
Leaders like Rob Stewart are willing to risk everything for what they believe in, and though he might be viewed as a fanatical heretic by most people for trying to save what's traditionally been seen as a maniacal killer, future generations will likely look back at ours and either thank people like Stewart or wonder why more of us didn't help his cause.
Rob Stewart accompanies Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, on some shark-saving missions in the film. I won't go into detail about Watson's storied history (he's featured in Animal Planet's Whale Wars), but he's another leader who's fought for what he believes in despite naysayers, tradition and defiance.
Watson founded Sea Shepherd in the early 80's, and has embarked on hundreds of missions to save defenseless wildlife the world over. He's been met with criticism - and often violent opposition - from private fisherman, governments, and even other animal-welfare organizations. But he's forged ahead, maintaining his faith that the world will be better if the brutal slaughter of ocean life is put to an end.
Leaders worldwide are fighting successfully for causes they believe in, causes that benefit you or things you believe in even if you know nothing about what's going on. Animals Asia Foundation was founded by Jill Robinson to protect animals and end cruelty in Asia. They recently rescued 149 dogs being illegally shipped in China for their meat, and have made inroads in saving the lives of thousands of more animals in areas where dogs, cats, bears, tigers and other animals are consumed without abandon. In a culture where people often consume animals with complete disregard for their wellbeing (our culture isn't necessarily much better), Jill Robinson's courage and faith is all many animals have going for them. She continues in spite of what other people say against her.
Another leader in animal welfare, Nathan Winograd, has faced opposition from some of the largest animal-welfare agencies in the world. Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center, Winograd fights on for what he believes in - saving the lives of millions of shelter dogs and cats in America - in spite of intense attacks.
Winograd and other leaders are profiled in Seth Godin's latest book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Godin's a leader in his own right, and believes that leadership is more powerful than management, and that the faith of the few is more effective and inevitably more beneficial than the strength of the majority. If you're trying to make a change in your work, in your society, in your life, Godin's book will inspire you and give you insight into effective leadership.
Though you may've never heard of the people mentioned above, they're working passionately and fiercely for what they believe in. They've all inspired followers to work for their movements, and they've made inroads in areas that have been traditionally closed to positive change. They're heretics who challenge the status quo, who do what they believe in, who look to the future and forge ahead without fear of failure. And though they might not have nearly as many followers or detractors as other motivated, strong people attacked as heretics - Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama - they're making positive change in a world of resistance.
The thing I've learned most from these people is that it doesn't take a world to make change. It doesn't even take a majority to form a meaningful and powerful movement. All it takes is a few people with faith and motivation to make the world a better place for everyone. Positive change comes from negative circumstances, and if you're looking to lead others in your faith - no matter what it is - you'd do well learn about these people, and to take this quote from Seth Godin to heart:
"Tearing others down isn't as helpful as building followers up."