The YMCA might not seem like an obvious case study for modern corporation, but given it’s federal structure gives a powerful insight into what it takes to transform a complex organisation in the 21st century as leaders find, for all their status, that the complex nature of modern organisations means mandating change just doesn’t work.

I met with Johan Vilhelm in the midst of his tenure as Secretary General of the World YMCA just before he went to the UK Parliament to present the findings of the biggest research ever done on youth aged between 15 and 24 and start the mobilisation of the world’s powers to listen and respond to the issues of the youth in the world today.

This conversation with Johan Vilhelm is the second interview in FirstHuman’s Leadership Showcase called ‘Conscious Leadership’. Our intention is to share the thinking and ideas of people we have worked with who we believe both to be extraordinary leaders and people interested in making a difference in the world. Our intention is to celebrate and acknowledge greatness while also sharing their life experience that others can learn from – to create a legacy. We want it to be rich, vivid and interesting.

What follows is a summary of our conversation with Johan Vilhelm – I hope you will find it interesting.

How do you lead and modernise a global organistion when you have no formal power?  What do you have available as a leader for your commitment to play out on the ground around the world?

“You have to have a clear understanding of the context you are working in. World YMCA is built on a federative model with independent national associations and they all have the possibility of just gliding away and go into their own separate reality. As you said, I do not have any form of formal power. I am very much aware of that. In fact I enjoy not having formal power because the only way you can have influence is by inspiring change, by inspiring unity and by inspiring progress. That is what I find fascinating about my work; that you have to be able to formulate visions together with as many of your peers as possible – because my view of myself is not to be the genius prophet coming down from heaven to tell the world how to be. It is to convene and to facilitate a process where more and more people think in the same way and where people have the freedom not to think that way and not to go that way and that is OK. When you have pushed that out without any use of force people will relax and they will start to listen and then they start to engage and invest of themselves. You then have a power field where this is a coming together and people are inspiring each other and they are turning to their peers saying: ”This is great. You should join us”. This is the way that you influence.”

“One early example is from my time in Europe. The umbrella organisation didn’t do much. There were some small training courses, some campaigns and materials developed and I was asking myself “How can we influence the movement positively? How can we inspire them?” I decided to bring young people together physically. We created a youth festival with the aim of bringing together 3,000 people. It hadn’t been done before so people laughed at me. Despite a lot of resistance, it ended up with 7,500 people and it was repeated and repeated as people came in big numbers, experienced new things, became inspired, developed new programmes and brought it all back home. 700 participants from the Swedish YMCA rented a train and came together down through Europe and that travel brought that movement together in a special way. They were living together on that train and when they arrived they had already changed their own movement. These are very powerful ways of changing and having influence. But it has nothing to do with formal power.”

“You can’t force it to work and the only power you have is freedom. When you try to fight, people will just try to stop you by boycotting you and do whatever they want to do.”

“The bottom line is that you are either relevant or you are not there at all. You lead through being relevant and if you are not relevant you are not leading at all.”

Tell us a little more about the YMCA – what is the purpose of the YMCA?

“The purpose of the YMCA is to empower young people, and it has been about empowering young people since 1844. That is when George Williams, our founder, went out for himself in the streets of London in the middle of the industrial revolution and he saw the young people coming to London in big numbers and ending up in social misery. The YMCA is about meeting young people where they are and empowering them.”

“The world has never been as young as it is today. There are 1.8 billion young people out there. We believe that young people are worse off today than in 1844. Of course you have many happy young people. They represent the biggest potential ever with their large energy, they are successful and they are revolutionary. They are creative, they are fantastic, they are committed. And they are committing suicides in big numbers. They are both victims and potential. We are there to reach out to these young people and give them a place where they can have a voice, where they can have influence and where they can create a better life for themselves and other young people.”

What was the challenge you were presented with when taking on the role as the Secretary General of the World YMCA back in January 2011?

“We are in 119 countries around the world. We are in all cultures. 10% of our membership are Muslims. This is a hugely diverse organisation and keeping this together as one movement is not difficult if you don’t challenge the movement on unity. We like to be together and every World Council gathering is full of friendship and joy, but people normally go to those events with the expectation to meet friends and then they go home and keep on doing what they are used to doing. We had become more and more divided into separate units and we did not coordinate very well. However, the YMCA has a strong relevance in the local communities, the local associations know what the local needs are and they are prepared to face those needs.“

“I enjoy not having formal power because the only way you can have influence is by inspiring change, by inspiring unity and by inspiring progress.”

“The height of the YMCA was in 1946 when we got the Nobel Peace Prize for our work with young people, refugees and prisoners of war during and between the two world wars. The American president said this will never be duplicated and predictably, after that we somehow lost it. The sad conclusion of this process of decline came in the middle of the 1990’s when the leaders of the time decided to close the most important programme element of the YMCA, namely the refugee desk. That was what we were known for, that was what we got the Nobel Prize for and that was what we could fundraise for. We also had a fantastic building down at the lake in Geneva which was given to us at a low prize by the canton on Geneva in recognition of the work we had done for the refugees and the prisoners of war. They decided to sell the building, which was a disastrous mistake. They closed the most important programme, they sold the most prestigious building and they moved up into the hill.”

“When I came to Geneva I met people who said “The YMCA is here? We didn’t know”. We were in fact the first international organisation there; we created the international flair of Geneva back in 1870. When I was appointed in mid 2010 the expectations were probably that I would continue not to do much and in that way be keeping the harmony and the peace.”

So what did you do?

“I said we need a stronger collective voice, we have to go back into our history and understand why we lost it, start a process of finding what is core to us and win this organisation back, regain it and become relevant again. You could call it ‘cultural archaeology’. We went back to our roots in the streets of London in 1844, to our role during the two world wars and the big depression and it quickly became clear that all the way YMCA has been about empowering young people.

“The clarity of purpose during those critical times was a life giving process and we now need to find that energy again which will give us this natural force like the civil rights movement in the US, or the anti apartheid movement in South Africa, or the women’s liberation. These movements were born from an instinctive feeling of justice. For us it is about young people, and we say there is an untold story out there of injustice towards young people. A story that people don’t want to hear. We have set out to tell that story. Being focused on all young people we have the potential to become the largest civil society movement or organisation in the history of mankind.”

“In my mind this is the only way that we can really unify and mobilise this global organisation. If you inject an idea from the outside that everyone should buy Kodak cameras and that has your blessing, you don’t stand a chance. You have to find something that is inside your own system, your own organisation, your own culture, something that you know that people will identify with.”

You are now building up a more distinct profile and identity for the YMCA. How do you deal with any rogue elements?

“Well, we do have a little gun hidden away. We are of course not totally without formal power. When a national YMCA becomes a member in World YMCA, according to the constitution they sign away the rights to the name YMCA. This is the unique property of the World YMCA. If they are jeopardising the good name and reputation of the YMCA we can dis-associate them from us. We can take away the right to use the name YMCA and that is a threat that works most of the time when we come across wrongdoings like corruption or other issues that will jeopardise the good name of the YMCA. However, if they continue to go on we have no police force. You have to comply with the constitution or we throw you out.”

Having re-established the purpose of the YMCA, what are you now doing to be effective in empowering young people across the world?

“To distinguish the voice of the young people in the world we launched the One Million Voices research project. We started this without any resources or expertise in running evidence based research, and we succeeded. This was the largest ever piece of research on the youth group of 15-24 years old, covering 55 countries, all continents and nearly 18,000 young people representing their countries – statistically they represent several hundred millions of young people. This month we are presenting the findings of this research and in a few months we will start the next research project, which will have the whole world youth population as the universe. The idea is that every four years the YMCA will deliver the state of young people. Then we know what is happening out there – what the untold story of the youth in the world is.”

“You can’t solve young people’s problems by buying them, you can’t use military power and you can’t use coercion. That is why we started the Change Agent project and recruited hundreds of young leaders between 20 and 30 years of age. Half of them staff and half of them volunteers. We train them and bring them together over a two year period for global gatherings where they are together in one place and they become local young leaders with a global mind-set and a shared understanding of the vision. They go back and change their local organisations from the inside and then they go out into the youth population with a message, an offering and a programme that will attract much higher number of young people.”

“This is so different from where we stated five years ago. We now have a couple of powerful tools – the research and the change agents, all backed by a growing understanding of what our raison d’etre is, giving us momentum and a drive forward.”

You talk about the empowering the “young people”, but the leadership of the YMCA right now strikes me as anything but young.  What are you doing to address this?

“If we legitimately want to spearhead any youth cause we have to become a youth led organisation. If we do not let young people come into positions of power then we should step back and just facilitate. We are both places just now. In some places we are not youth led at all and it is an old male dominated leadership. In other parts of the world there are as many females as men and there are young people in positions of power. I’m not looking to change or revolutionise this and send all the grey hair away so that only young people decide. I see an intergenerational cooperation as the smart place to be. Then we keep a connection to all sides of society and become really strong.”

“You lead through being relevant and if you are not relevant you are not leading at all.”

“Creating this intergenerational cooperation is the essence of the on-going modernisation of this organisation. This is new and untested territory that we are going into. In my staff team we often say that we are flying a plane as we are building it – which is a deadly dangerous sport. It is a very interesting management experience, though!”

“It takes courage to go into this unchartered territory and look for really new solutions. We didn’t set out on this march with a pre-set goal. We said: “We need to change. We need to find new solutions and we don’t know what those solutions are. But we will walk into the jungle and we will reach what we need to reach, but we don’t yet know what it is”.”

How does the YMCA support the young people in getting their message out to the world and cause the change they say is needed?

“Working with the youth we are creating platform for a much better life, a more peaceful life and a more hopeful life for young people and now we need to interact with and impact the powers of this world. We need to make them aware of the needs of the young people and make them aware of practical ways they can I improve their lives. Going to parliament today is a symbolic first step of talking to the powers in the world. I want to be a damn good channel for the voice of the young people out there so that the untold story comes forward. I see a huge responsibility and a huge opportunity in being that interface and this is what we need to see happen in Edinburgh, Melbourne, Auckland, Mumbai, and so on. We are on our way.”

“You have to find something that is inside your own system, your own organisation, your own culture, something that you know that people will identify with.”

“I am telling the powers that we need to help young people to be employable, to find ways of educating them, to train them and to inform them how to get jobs. We have to enable young people through their energy to create jobs. We need to recognise that the suicide statistic used to be about elderly males – now it is young people. The young people are passing the elderly on those terrible statistics. There are several key needs that go unmet that I will raise and I will say: “We need to understand this suffering and there are ways that we together can rectify loads of this”.”

What about collaborating with businesses?

“There is a lot of truth to business being able to mobilise and put money behind things. We are looking for much more creative collaboration and many businesses are motivated by our cause which is fantastic. World YMCA was one of the first partners in what is called the Circular Society in Switzerland. We have joined them as the biggest NGO partner and we believe that this is a place where business schools, multinationals and NGOs can move together to create a better society. I have invested quite a lot of money to bring us into this partnership and we are working around youth and unemployment. They are bringing in expertise. We are bringing in infrastructure and the young people to work this together.”

When you have tougher times, where do you to source yourself to come back and be the leader you need to be?

“Work setbacks and work related crises can be pretty existential for any leader. When I have those real setbacks, resistance and disappointments I find my strength in my staff team. There is only a small team of leaders around me in Geneva, but I have senior staff decentralised in India, Kenya, Australia, USA, UK. They all come to Geneva at least three times a year for longer staff retreats. That is when we go to ‘the jungle’ to set ourselves new targets and walk into the unknown. That is an inspiring team approach and we call it ‘the table’ as we have a big table we sit around. We work together as a team from morning to night, moving together, using the brainpower of everybody and internalising together as a team so that when we separate and go to our different corners of the world we can tell the same message. At that table I find my strength. When we process the setbacks and disappointments, we digest it, we rage, we are angry, we are disappointed, we are responding emotionally and then it is processed. We take the pain out of it and then we can start responding in a professional way to the outside. Nothing comes out of that room as the process is going, but afterwards when we have digested it we can communicate with the rest of the world in a sensible way. Emotionally this is an enormously important process for me.“

Finally, who influenced you as a leader?

“I had a very significant reading experience when I was 17 years old. I read absolutely everything that Henrik Ibsen had ever written and I see myself as somewhere between Brand and Peer Gynt. Henrik Ibsen is a deeply moral writer and through Brand he says that the leader that is the most alone is the strongest. Brand has extreme viewpoints but he highlights independence, the personal strength, will power and the strong elements. However, that has to be balanced with generosity and love. At the end of his life Brand is dying in a natural disaster and he can hear the voice of God saying: “I am the God of love”. This balances this extreme righteousness of Brand who doesn’t want to compromise, who want to go the right way and who challenges everybody around him, which is a very painful place to be. But it has to be balanced by “I am the God of love”. Brand does not have this balance.”

“You need to have some unbreakable principles, but you have to be generous and forgiving and you need to know when to do what.”

“This is where I think you become very humble and should become very generous. Understanding this power field gave me a very significant life-shaping experience. On the other side you have Peer Gynt who says “wanting it, thinking it, dreaming it, even deciding for it, but do it, no that I can not!” He is the philosopher. He is the diplomat and the businessman compromising in everything. He can see the good things and see the good way, he can want it but to go there and to do it – no. He is the guy who is too smart for his own good and who compromises his own values – he is a loser. Brand is also a loser because he is too extreme and had no generosity with himself or with others, and then you are lost. You need to have some unbreakable principles, but you have to be generous and forgiving and you need to know when to do what. I have the strength of Brand and the weakness of Peer Gynt inside me and I am trying to find the right balance.”