I recently gave a talk on courageous leadership, and I used the life of William Wilberforce as an example of what it means to be a truly courageous leader—the type of person who faces adversity head-on and never wavers in his resolve. As I studied Wilberforce, I discovered a person who was both passionate about accomplishing his life’s goal and unrelenting in his quest for influencing meaningful and lasting change during a dark and difficult time in history.
Wilberforce lived in England during the height of the British slave trade in the late 1700’s and became a member of Parliament at age 21. After re-connecting with his Christian faith in his early 20’s, Wilberforce committed his life to a higher calling—the pursuit of ending the British slave trade. Although he considered leaving public service for the ministry, he ultimately decided to stay in Parliament where he could advocate for the abolition of the slave trade.
So, how did Wilberforce demonstrate courageous leadership?
1) He had the courage to get clear about his purpose and values.
Wilberforce got crystal clear about his reason for existence and what he believed. That clarity led him to change the course of his life by focusing on the ultimate goal of ending the slave trade in Britain. As a result, he gave up a life of comfort to pursue a life of significance.
2) He had the courage to not let current circumstances dictate his future.
Wilberforce knew that his crusade to end the slave trade would be wildly unpopular, but this reality did not deter him. Even in the midst of physical beatings, assassination threats, and public slander, Wilberforce stayed focused on living out his values and fulfilling his purpose.
3) He had the courage to take decisive and intentional action.
Wilberforce did not just talk about ending the slave trade, he took direct action to end it. He used his position and influence to introduce bills in Parliament time and time again throughout the 1790’s, even though they did not pass. And although he was not seeing the results he desired, Wilberforce was disciplined enough to act with conviction and continue pursuing his goals.
4) He had the courage to persevere in the midst of adversity.
Wilberforce never gave up on his dream. He stayed the course. He put forth legislative bills. He influenced public opinion about the evils of slavery. He made the case for abolition. Finally in 1807, his 20-year labor paid off, as the House of Commons in Britain voted to the end the slave trade. Wilberforce wept at the realization of his dream coming true before his very own eyes.
William Wilberforce stands today as an enduring example of what happens when good men demonstrate courageous leadership. His efforts helped to change the course of history for mankind and made our world a better place. Yet, even after achieving his goal to end the slave trade, Wilberforce committed the rest of his life to ending the institution of slavery altogether. His commitment was not in vain. In 1833, three days before his death, all slaves in the British Empire were set free. A fitting end to a life well-lived with boldness and courage.
“One man with courage makes a majority.” –Andrew Jackson