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Nazanin Afshin-Jam is a 2011 graduate of the Master of Arts in Diplomacy program and a highly visible global human rights activist. The following has been adapted from her speech at the Commencement Ceremony for the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies in June 2017, speaking on the Residency Conference theme “Leading Today, Inspiring Tomorrow.”

When I was with the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, I was well known amongst my peers for my non-traditional style of leadership. While some of my contemporaries took liberties with the cadets in their charge—for instance, forcing them to do pushups when their boots were poorly polished, or yelling if any of them smiled on parade—I treated my cadets as friends. Clearly, I occupied one end of the extreme while my peers sat firmly on the other. Which begs the question, is it better to lead through fear, or love? Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Ayatollah Khomeini, Ghaddafi, Pol Pot, Stalin—they all agreed with Machiavelli that it is better to be feared.

Being ruled by fear may make you into an obedient follower and prevent threats to the status quo. But, does fearmongering beget devotion? If you must enforce your vision in a coercive way, manipulate your followers’ emotions or brainwash them into allegiance, is that true leadership? To me it is not: it is the bedrock of dictatorship. It is much more difficult—and thus, more effective, honorable and long-lasting—to earn the love and respect of your followers rather than take it by force. To me, such commitment to earning devotion is the true definition of a leader—specifically, a great one.


"It is much more difficult—and thus, more effective, honorable and long-lasting—to earn the love and respect of your followers rather than take it by force."

What separates the tyrants that I mentioned from leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., or Cyrus the Great? The key ingredient is compassion; converting the "me" to "we"; working for the collective "good" of a nation or group without threat of coercion. The most successful business leaders and Fortune 500 Company CEOs possess that crucial component of compassion.  In his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, author Jim Collins analyzes what differentiates good companies from great companies. In his study of successful companies, he finds that these “level 5 leaders” (as he calls them) possess a mix of great ambition and personal humility rooted in compassion. These leaders’ ambitions are not derived from ego but rather their desire to succeed for the greater good.

And, what is compassion? For me, it is empathy in action—the ability to internalize other people’s needs, pressures, dreams and desires. Feeling others’ pain in your own heart to the point that it moves you to take action to alleviate suffering is the biggest indicator of a compassionate leader.

Perhaps I can best illustrate this point with an anecdote from my career as a human rights activist. In 2006, someone shared with me the story of an Iranian girl, also named “Nazanin.” Nazanin Fatehi was a poor Kurdish girl living under the dominion of a father that valued the lives of his sons over those of his daughters, as well as a regime that legally discriminates against women and treats them as second-class citizens. In March 2005, Nazanin stabbed a man who attempted to rape her and her 15-year-old niece; she herself was only 17-years-old at the time. This act of self-defense resulted in the assailant’s death and rather than being treated as a victim of attempted rape, Nazanin was tried for murder and subsequently sentenced to death by hanging.

It’s not difficult to see the injustices in her case, but perhaps I can further explain the legal discrimination she faced.

  1. In Iran, a woman’s life—and legal testimony—is worth half that of a man’s. Under Shari’a law, a woman needs four male witnesses to justify an act of murder in self-defense. Legally, Nazanin was not considered a victim of attempted rape, but a criminal.
  1. Internationally, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age.” In Iran, the age of maturity is much younger: fifteen for boys and only nine for girls.
  1. Had the tables been turned and the would-be rapist stabbed and killed Nazanin, it is unlikely that he would have received the death sentenced because, again, he was essentially only taking half a life.
  1. If Nazanin had allowed the attempted rape to take place, she could have been charged with “acts incompatible with chastity” and received 100 lashes as punishment. Had she been married, she could have been charged with adultery and sentenced to death by stoning.

In addition to being subject to these unjust laws, Nazanin’s prison experience was exceedingly inhumane. I learned that while she was in prison, she had been force fed sedatives, locked in solitary confinement, tortured with electrified chains and beaten by fellow prisoners and guards. She was under so much pressure that she even attempted to take her own life.

Hearing all of this, I recalled my former days as a Red Cross Global Youth ambassador:

“If not now then when; if not you then whom?”

This is what inspired me to act. I took up a position of leadership using the only force I had available to me: compassion. I put my career on hold for a year and spearheaded an international campaign to save Nazanin’s life. Through worldwide rallies, media interviews, speeches at the United Nations and the Commission on Human Rights and a petition that received 350,000 signatures, we increased pressure on the Iranian government to grant Nazanin a reprieve.

Thanks to the efforts of the international community, the head of the judiciary in Iran granted a stay of execution and ordered a new trial for Nazanin. She was finally exonerated of the murder charges and freed from prison to be reunited with her family. This story speaks to the power of the individual and how each and every one of us has the ability to make significant changes in this world by stepping up to become leaders when no one else is willing to take charge—and it is all born of compassion. Nazanin is now married with children and living a simple, but happy life in the Kurdistan region of Iran.


"... the power of the individual and how each and every one of us has the ability to make significant changes in this world by stepping up to become leaders when no one else is willing to take charge—and it is all born of compassion."

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” What if I had doubted this maxim? If I had listened to all those people who said I was tilting at windmills by trying to go up against an oppressive regime, if each person that signed our petition had a similarly defeatist attitude, who knows where Nazanin would be today. If compassion is one of the major hallmarks of a great leader, then so is the ability to experience and overcome self-doubt for the benefit of a greater good. That is why I encourage Norwich alumni, faculty, staff and students to stay in touch with one another, and to keep Norwich’s values in mind as they continue to achieve great things through our motto, “essayons” or, “I will try.”

And, if I could add, “essayons avec compassion,” or, “I will try with compassion.”

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