09/07/2013 09:50 am ET Updated Nov 07, 2013

Here's to the Foot Soldiers of Change

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - It's a humbling experience to meet one of history's heroes. But as scores of people found out here last week, it's more complicated than that.

When you shake a hero's hand, you realize that he or she is flesh and blood just like you and me. You wonder: How can someone like me do what he or she has done?

In this case, the hero was Mikhail Gorbachev who at 5-foot-9 and 82 years old remains a giant of history as well as a force for good today. In case you weren't born yet and had a lousy history teacher, Gorbachev was the leader of the former Soviet Union in the 1980s. He was instrumental in ending the Cold War, reunifying Germany, and reversing the buildup of nuclear weapons. For good measure, he instituted policies of transparency, openness and reform in what had been an oppressive Soviet society.

While President Ronald Reagan often is credited with some of these achievements, it was Gorbachev who had the far greater challenge as the two men grew from adversaries to collaborators. Reagan paddled downstream in harmony with his political base; Gorbachev paddled upstream against a strong current of resistance, including the military-industrial complex in his own country

After all of these achievements, Gorbachev refused to fade away. He founded Green Cross International, a worldwide organization that works for nuclear disarmament and environmental protection. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he instituted periodic meetings of his fellow Laureates to discuss world affairs. Ten years ago, he founded another process that encourages thought leaders to think: his Earth Dialogues, in which he convenes experts and activists of all ages and disciplines to search for solutions to today's most pressing problems.

It was at the seventh of the Dialogues that Gorbachev appeared last week at the United Nations complex in Geneva - the place where the UN was born. Gorbachev entered the majestic UN auditorium and took the long walk to his reserved seat in the front row, leaning lightly on the arm of a colleague. He is a little less steady than he was when he wrangled with the likes of Reagan and Margret Thatcher and his own political leaders. But when he addressed the conference a few minutes later, it was clear that Gorbachev's mind and sense of humor are as sharp as ever.

I'm not sure of all that Gorbachev said because I grew pensive watching him. There have been several iconic change agents in my lifetime. Some were assassinated for threatening the status quo, which of course is precisely what a change agent does. Some have died of disease or age, like Mother Teresa and Wangari Maathai. Others are in their "twilight years" - Nelson Mandela, Gorbachev and to a lesser extent Lech Walesa, for example.

I wondered who would emerge from the upcoming generation as world-altering champions of change. Are we running out of them by attrition? God knows we need them with the suffering that billions of the world's people experience every day, and with climate change looming over a fragmented international community that hasn't figured out how to handle it.

Did the young people in the audience who would never rise to the stature of a Gorbachev, a Mandela or a King know how essential they are to the power of leaders like these? Without us apprentices and journeymen of social change behind them, a Gorbachev of the future would have little influence. Imagine Martin Luther King marching alone from Selma to Montgomery or speaking at the Lincoln Memorial to an empty mall. His "dream" speech had moral power, but it was the hundreds of thousands of people who marched on Washington to hear him that gave King's speech political power.

Like Gorbachev, Walesa was born into a peasant family. He rose from his job as an electrician to become the leader of the Solidarity movement in Poland and later the country's president. He was arrested and jailed as a dissident, but he ended up presiding over his country's transition to a post-communist state. He would not have achieved these things without the workers behind him who struck and in some cases died for the movement.

Mandela might not have lived to see apartheid abandoned as the official policy of South Africa, had not the people who shared his moral outrage supported him. Among them were students in the United States who protested and were jailed in their movement to have America pull its investments out of South Africa.

Heroism takes a multitude. Leaders such as Gorbachev or a King achieved their influence by persuading the rest of us to let them stand on our shoulders. They succeeded because of people like us -- foot soldiers in the war against ignorance, cruelty and greed.

What certifies foot soldiers as heroes is our willingness to be guided by a moral compass even when it leads us through painful territory, to march the march, to fill the streets and the superhighways on the Internet, and to empower great leaders to lead. We've seen some of that courage in recent marches on Washington and in outbursts like Occupy Wall Street. We've seen a few protests against the 21st century robber barons who are wrecking our future. Unfortunately, the robber barons are still winning. We need more heroes, many more foot soldiers and more sustained outrage. Gorbachev probably would tell us that we need them now, more than ever before.