My childhood was spent under the shadow of Apartheid in South Africa. In those years, the ANC, and Nelson Mandela, were considered a terrorist organisation and the ruling National Party were heroic soldiers in the face of some amorphous threat that was related to race. This experience has had a profound impact on my views on power and leadership.
The government of the time ruled with fear, casting shadows where there were none. Brave journalists who dared to challenge the narrative and bring in the perspective of the oppressed were shut down. Anyone who dared to challenge was beaten, jailed and sometimes just ‘disappeared overnight’. The army and police were used by the government to serve their agenda. The indoctrination of us as young white adults both in high-school and for the boys, in basic training in conscripted service, was horrifying. It was a system of oppression and violence.
As a result of this experience, I have a low tolerance for two things – the use of power over citizens, and the appropriation of information – and thereby sole owner on the source of ‘truth’ - by a state.
I had thought I’d left those times behind. I fear we have not.
Many of us lead privileged lives and have much to be grateful for. And my view is that many state leaders are once more operating from a place of fear. Fear about a world that is changing and how little control we have over it. Fear about protecting our privileges from those who have nothing. The forces of globalisation that were unleashed decades back will not be reeled in. Leaders offer comfort by committing to shutting borders, building walls, be harder on miscreants, and withdraw from global agreements such as those born out of the fragile peace of World War 2.
Corporations and their leaders play their own part in these strange times. Untrammeled by accountability for their impact, the collective visions of Bezos, Jobs, Musk and Kalanick are coming into being in their purest form. Those currently responsible for disruption are billion-dollar companies whom no-one dares hold to account. As long as money is being made, who cares about the socio-economic cost of their business models, or impact on the millions of people that work for them. The digital age has destroyed the information age. Information is intentionally being used to create disorder.
It feels like the insane times of my childhood have returned. The voice of citizens is lost in political and corporate agendas misaligned to the very planet on which we depend for our lives. Leaders use power over their citizens and it’s impossible to know what’s true or not.
These are not easy times to live in. I’ll admit that I’ve had my head in the sand for some time around this reality. I have numerous friends and colleagues who choose not to read the news because it all feels too much. I can understand that. Many of us – myself included – feel overwhelmed.
We are so clear and quick to point out what we don’t want. And I’m now in a place where I’m curious about what kind of leadership do we want to see in the world. It’s time to share and step into the leadership that will serve this planet and the times we find ourselves in.
So what kind of leaders do we choose to be in these times?
These times call for what Joanna Macy names as active hope.
“Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world. The web of life is calling us forth at this time.”
There are signs to be hopeful that the predominant culture of leadership demonstrated by corporations and governments is not the only way to lead. The humility, passion and commitment of teenage climate activists and tribal leaders facing loss of their lands are just two examples of a new way to lead.
Joanna Macy calls us forth in her missive:
“With active hope we realize that there are adventures in store, strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with. Active hope is a readiness to discover the strengths in ourselves and in others; a readiness to discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love. A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, our own authority, our love for life, the liveliness of our curiosity, the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence, the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.”
These are times for a different type of leader if we are to navigate our way through these chaotic times. So let us have the courage to have the conversations and the commitment to ourselves and our future to do and be something different from that’s which is modelled around us.
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