Ours Is a Leadership Opportunity

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Is it just me, or do you also find the constant talk of a leadership “crisis” boring and depressing? It seems a well-worn cliché now that is no longer helpful. Use of the word crisis can serve to mobilise and rally communities of people wonderfully for a short while. But if used ongoingly –as it is these days– it has the opposite effect.
I believe that it is not only is it unimaginative, but also irresponsible to regurgitate this tired cliché. It perpetuates the very situation - disorientation, numbness, a lack of energy and uncertainty – that we bemoan. When we decry the reality that we consider to be “the state of leadership” in our country, we are in fact practising poor leadership ourselves.

What do I mean by leadership? One of the best definitions that I have heard is that leaders take people to places that they ordinarily would not go to by themselves. Good leaders create a compelling vision of a place that people can’t quite imagine or fully believe in yet, and then they help them to get there. Poor leaders recycle the status quo.

One of our problems is that we believe that only Great Leaders, like Nelson Mandela, can take us to an alternate future. Perhaps this is because, as Mamphela Ramphele has identified, we still have a “Groot Baas” mentality 18 years after Apartheid was supposed to have died. We have abdicated our responsibility to be active citizens to a very small and elite few who never were and never will be able to do it on their own. The Dinokeng Scenarios (http://www.dinokengscenarios.co.za) of 2009, which she helped to outline, encourage us to “Walk Together” to realise a future in which civil society, you and I, take leadership together with government.

Scenario planning is based on the premise that our future is not fixed. Leadership is an act of creation and we can choose from a range of alternate pictures or scenarios. This approach was used powerfully when our future seemed extremely precarious in the early 90’s. The Mont Fleur Scenarios outlined four such stories about the future and gave each story evocative names like “Lame Duck” and “Icarus”. In the end the participants chose a story called “Flight of the Flamingoes” in which the transition to democracy was successful, with everyone rising slowly and together. They set about sharing this story and in so doing, sowed the belief that this was possible.

What stories are you telling? What South Africa are you painting? Which country are you choosing to live in? What effect are your words having on those around you?

The words that we choose to use are critical, and we do have a choice. South Africa’s leadership is only in crisis if that is what we choose. A leader knows that a problem represents a solution, waiting to be discovered. Leaders are willing to stand out from the crowd and offer a different way of looking at our reality, an alternative route to the future. Leaders don’t accept reality as it seems to be. We create it as we would like it to be.

We can each be leaders by simply not repeating well-worn clichés. Let’s begin by choosing to replace the word crisis with opportunity. Let’s start looking out for stories that support our chosen future and let’s share these with each other. I know of many, but here’s just one.

Last year the DG Murray Trust launched an ambitious nationwide public innovation and leadership incubator called Activate! Currently 200 young people are involved in their three year programme that is building a critical mass of think-out-the-box trendsetters and they are scaling their reach quickly. These young social change agents represent a wave of emerging ethical leaders that is beginning to gain momentum and will be increasingly visible in years to come.

The country of our dreams exists, but we are still expecting that someone else will take us there. In the seeds of our crisis lies the chance to realise that there is no Great Leader or Groot Baas who will save us. We have to go where we have not been willing to go before. We have to start using words that inspire hope and create energy when we talking about our country. We have to stop talking, and, like Activate!, just start doing.

What seems like a crisis to some, can be a leadership opportunity for each and every one of us.

Leigh Meinert is a co-founder and executive director of TSiBA, a private not for profit business school.

05 September 2012

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