6 Great Leaders Who Beat the Odds

Flickr/Russell Watkins

Malala Yousafzai

Flickr/Russell Watkins

Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
June 15, 2024 at 10:28AM UTC
Throughout history and continuing into the present, many of the world's greatest leaders have defied tremendous odds to become the powerful, influential people who inspired—and in many cases continue to inspire—countless people across the globe.
Today, we admire their leadership skills, visionary traits, and exemplary qualities, but once upon a time, they came from unlikely origins. Some faced extreme poverty or violence; others had difficult upbringings and suffered tremendous trials and obstacles throughout their lives. Despite their hardships, these leaders inspire people all over the world with their courage, acts of bravery, intelligence, accomplishments, and great leadership. They faced extraordinarily challenges, and yet they never wavered from achieving their vision of a better world for others.
Here are 10 great leaders who overcame immense obstacles to realize their vision—and become the people we so admire today:
1. Oprah Winfrey
Today, Oprah's name is synonymous with success. The talk show host is so famous that she doesn't even really need her last name. Mention "Oprah," and everyone knows whom you're talking about. 
There is no denying Oprah's massive success—and massive wealth. Her current estimated net worth is $2.7 billion.
But when she was growing up, Oprah faced tremendous poverty in rural Mississippi. She was born to Vernita Lee, an unmarried teenage mother who claimed the conception was the result of a single sexual encounter; the couple broke up shortly after. Until she was six, Oprah lived in poverty with her grandmother. They were so poor that Oprah wore dresses made out of potato sacks.
Her mother returned to bring Oprah to an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee, where she gave birth to Oprah's half-sister, Patricia, who died of cocaine-related causes at the age of 43. Vernita also gave birth to another daughter, whom she put up for adoption, and a son, Jeffrey, who later died of AIDS-related causes.
Raped and sexually assaulted by family members and friends of her mother, Oprah became preganant and gave birth at the age of 14. Her son later died in infancy.
But Oprah's story didn't end there. After success in Upward Bound, she excelled in high school and won an oratory contest that granted her a scholarship to attend Tennessee State University. Her interest in radio and television broadcasting developed in college before she was fired from her first television job as an evening news anchor.
Oprah moved to Chicago to host WLS-TV's low-rated, half-hour morning talk show, AM Chicago. Originally ranked in last place, her show became the highest-rated talk show in Chicago after just a few months under Oprah's leadership.
Roger Ebert, an early admirer, persuaded Oprah to sign a syndication deal with King World. In 1986, her show was expanded and became known as The Oprah Winfrey Show. Today, Oprah has starred in moves and television shows, garnering her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance in The Color Purple, coauthored five books, co-founded the women's cable television network Oxygen, and become president of Harpo Productions (Oprah spelled backwards). She also continues to publish O: The Oprah Magazine, which Fortune described as the most successful startup in the magazine industry in 2002. Her radio channel on XM Satellite Radio, Oprah Radio, broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Oprah is also a prominent philanthropist, becoming the first black person to rank among the 50 most generous Americans in 2004. Established in 1998, Oprah's Angel Network supported charitable projects and provided grants to nonprofit organizations around the world, receiving $80,000,000 in donations and contributing 100% of all funds raised to charity programs. The Network was shut down in 2010 when The Oprah Winfrey Show ended.
Fortunately for her and all of us, Oprah persevered and became a role model with leadership qualities women—and men—around the world admire and envy.
2. Lucille Ball
The I Love Lucy star wasn't just a famed actress and comedian; Lucille Ball also exercised her leadership skills by becoming the first woman to run a major television studion, Desilu Productions, which produced shows like Star Trek.
But before Lucille developed her hit comedy with her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, she had a difficult upbringing. When she was three years old, her father, Henry Ball, died of typhoid fever while her mother, DeDe Ball, was pregant with Lucille's brother. Four years later, DeDe remarried, and Lucille's step-grandparents, a puritanical Swedisih couple, took care of Lucille and her brother, Frederick.
Lucille was introduced to acting when her stepfather took her to audition for the chorus line in a show at his company at the age of 12. But several years later, her family suffered financial loss in settlement with a boy who was paralyzed in a target shooting accident in their yard.
Despite their financial difficulties, DeDe sent Lucille to the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York as a ploy to separate her from her much older boyfriend. Her instructors were critical of her, telling her she would never be successful in the entertainment industry.
Lucille certainly proved her instructors wrong. Despite battling more obstacles, including becoming ill with rheumatoid arthritis, which prevented her from working for two years, Lucille Ball ended up winning 13 Emmy nominations and many other awards, including the the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center Honors. She was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
3. Malala Yousafzai
At age 20, Malala Yousafzai is already one of the world's greatest leaders, inspiring women and men around the world with her courage and bravery.
When she was just 12 years old, Malala began writing a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym at the suggestion of her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. In it, she detailed her life and thoughts about the Taliban's occupation of her region, Swat. She gained fame as a women's rights and education advocate after Adam B. Ellick made a New York Times documentary about Malala's life, and Desmond Tutu nominated her for an International Children's Peace Prize.
When she was 15 years old, a gunman from the Taliban shot her in assassination attempt in retaliation for her efforts. Despite nearly dying, Malala continued her activism, establishing the nonprofit Malala Fund, becoming the bestelling author of I Am Malala (co-authored) and the children's book Malala's Magic Pencil. In 2017, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate at the age of 17.
4. Rosa Parks
Famous for exemplifying great leadership by refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus—an action that ignited the Montgomery bus boycott and became an important symbol of the civil rights movement—Rosa Parks faced a difficult childhood facing racism under the Jim Crow laws of the South. She was frequently bullied by the white children in her neighborhood. In her autobiography, she recalled the Ku Klux Klan marching down the street and her grandfather standing guarding at the family's front door with a shotgun.
Despite showing academic promise, Rosa dropped out of school at the age of 11 to care for her ill grandmother and later mother.
As secretary of the NAACP, where her husband was a member, Rosa became a prominent civil rights activist. Her willingness to lead the movement, refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger and subsequently being arrested and charged, served to inspire other Montgomery residents to stand up to the racism in Alabama.
But her trials didn't end there. Because of her actions, Rosa lost her job at a department store and received death threats. Rosa refused to give up her activism, continuing to advocate for the Civil Rights movement. She also spoke out against police brutality and later advocated for the freedom of political prisoners. She co-founded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation for college-bound high school seniors and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, an institute that introduces young people to key civil rights and Underground Railroad sites across the country. She also served on the Board of Advocates of Planned Parenthood.
Bill Clinton awarded Rosa Parks the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she received the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest award from congress.
5. Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell recalled a happy childhood, although her famly faced a dire financial situation. Born in England, Elizabeth and her family moved to New York because of their finances and so they could fight for the abolitionist movement. After her father's death, Elizabeth and her sisters opened a school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies.
In her book, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, Elizabeth said that she turned to the medical profession after her career as a teacher because a dying friend suggested her suffering would have been lessened if her doctor were a woman.
Elizabeth began studying medicine on her own and with the help of private teachers. She was unable to gain admission to medical schools because of her gender; most schools claimed she was intellectually inferior to men because she was a woman, while others feared that she might be up to the task and would therefore serve as competition to her male counterparts. Some physicians advised her to study in Paris or disguise herself as a man to gain admission to medical school.
After applying to 12 schools, Elizabeth was admitted to Geneva Medical College, now Hobart College. The faculty were unable to reach a decision about her application and put it to a vote by the 150 male students, stipulating that one objection would result in a rejection. As the result of a unanimous vote, Elizabeth was admitted.
Elizabeth faced adversity as the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Some medical colleagues refused to work with her. Still, Elizabeth persevered, and in 1856, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her mentee, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, and her sister Emily. The clinic greatly expanded opportunities for women to serve as physicians and specialized in care for the poor.
As the pioneering female physician in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell continues to lead high-acheiving women posthumously.
6. Marie Curie
Born Marya Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize faced poverty growing up. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Marya was 10 years old. Unable to attend college because she was a woman, she and her sister, Bronisława, participated in the cladestine Flying University, which accepted women.
Marya agreed to support her sister in medical school in Paris with the agreement that Bronisława would later return the favor. She became a governess and fell in love with her second employer's son, the future prominent mathematician Kazimierz Żorawski. They were unable to marry; his family opposed the marriage because of Marya's poverty, a tragic situation for both members of the couple.
Marya continued studying independently, and eventually joined her sister in Paris to study physics, chemistry, and mathematics at the University of Paris. Marya had little to eat and occasionally fainted due to hunger.
Upon graduating with a degree in physics, Marya began working a laboratory. She met her future husband, Pierre Curie, through her work; he was a fellow scientist, an instructor at the École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de la ville de Paris. Marya, who became known as Marie in France, rejected Pierre's marriage proposal to return to Poland, where she hoped to continue her work. However, she was rejected from Kraków University because she was a woman. Pierre persauded Marie to return to Paris to pursue her Ph.D., and the couple married.
Marie Curie's accomplishments include developing the theory of radioactivity, developing techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and discovering the elements polonium and radium. She named polonium after Poland, her homeland.
Marie also developed mobile radiography units to provide X-ray services to field hospitals during World War II and founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw. The Curie Institutes remain centers of medical research today.
Additionally, Marie was the first woman to serve as a professor at the University of Paris. In 1903, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre, and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.
These great leaders inspire us every day and show us that success can often take hard work, plenty of sacrifices, and resilience.

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