Two words that point to new directions in leadership thinking is that of self-awareness and humbleness. What does it mean? The answer is to be present and to be prepared.
I worked with an organisation where the leaders were driven by the desire to be on the leading edge of developments in their field. Any innovation or strategy was quickly adapted and implemented. Change was truly the only certainty in that organisation.
As criticism (and the stress of continuous change) increased, they begin to see any form of criticism or apparent change in market demands as adversity – as a threat to their desire to be on the leading edge. As time went by and the need to change became institutionalised in the organisation. The leaders increasingly reacted from positions of fear. Their biggest fear was not to fail but the fear of being found out as in competent. They lived where fear dictated them to live.
The continuously changes that they made to the programs, systems and procedures within the organisation eventually took its toll. The continuous demands on the staff to adapt to the ideas of the leaders led to uncertainty and chaos as the staff tried to keep up with the stream of change. With time employees and customers lost trust and faith in the leadership team.
The way to respond to changes in the context of an organisation is to create strategies from a position of being present. Being present allows us to both understand and experience the contextual changes. It allows you to imagine the desired outcome and to choose to take responsible actions – dictated by neither fear nor arrogance. From the position of presence, leaders can prepare themselves, their organisation and the people of the organisation to create solutions.
Empathy and awareness together with imagination are the building blocks of hope and meaning.
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In the previous blog, I wrote that empathy, awareness and imagination – embedded in relationships with helpful others – are the building blocks of hope and meaning. Over the next few weeks, I will write about concepts such as empathy, awareness, imagination and hope.
Empathy is all about understanding the deepest needs of the world, and how it impacts human beings. It requires us to connect with our fellow human beings. Researcher, Brené Brown defines spirituality as the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected by something greater than us, love and compassion. She adds that this connection cannot be severed, but it can be forgotten.
Why do I forget that I am connected to every Syrian refugee, to the Italian family mourning the death of the three year old child in the recent floods, and to the young man on the street corner in Midrand or Oudtshoorn? One possible answer is thinking. Thinking responds to the experience of pain – not their pain but mine. Thinking opens the possibility of finding reasons to distance me from the other.
The confrontation with the need of others is also a confrontation with my own “core woundedness.” I supress my woundedness because I am afraid to face my vulnerability or limits or loneliness, dependence etc. I tell myself that pain is not good, and therefore it is acceptable (and reasonable) to keep my distance, which is to forget the inextricable connection of love and compassion.
Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen talked about “displacement” and “togetherness.” Displacement is the conscious recognition of our woundedness that brings us to deeper solidarity with the pain of others. Togetherness, he writes, can bring me to a place where I can recognise the sameness of all human beings. This recognition is the beginning of empathy. The true character of awareness is not to ignore your own needs and wants but to face your fears and affirm the connection between you and those who long for love.
Sources: Brene Brown’s sermon at the Washington Natiional Cathedral on January 21, 2018, can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndP1XDskXHY; Core woundedness is a concept used by Svannah Steinberg from Star Leadership in South Africa; The idea of displacement and sameness comes from Nouwen’s book Compassion, published by Darton, Longman and Todd of London. It was co-written with Donald P McNeil and Douglas A Morrison.
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In the previous blog, I wrote about the helpful other. The helpful other is a person who can open our eyes for new possibilities. They can stimulate our creativity to re-imagine our lives, i.e. both the core projects (our work and tasks) and our relationships (with the self and with fellow human beings). These helpful others can help us in three important ways.
First, the helpful other is a source that can assist us to discover and understand the deepest needs of the world. I have friends who opened my eyes for the need of those stigmatised in the crisis of AIDS. Others helped me to see the true realities of poverty, and yet others for the struggle of young men to find a place of value in a fast changing world – to name only three aspects of the need around me.
Second, the helpful others are important in helping me to be more self-aware, less judgemental, and to be present in the here and now. I cannot close my eyes to the need of the world, and I may not withhold my gifts from the needy. The helpful others can and should hold me accountable for the way I respond to the world.
Third, they can help me to understand the changes in the world, and to imagine the future. Increasingly, we realise that this imagined future requires a new way of thinking about the world and the way we live. We can talk about the impact of technological development on being human, the challenges we face with migration, the changes in civilisation (and thus values, anthropology, spirituality etc.) that happens around us. We humans are soft wired to belong and to relate with others, not to fear and abuse others. All this suggest that servant leaders must be real and humble persons. We need to re-think the way we relate.
Empathy, eyes and imagination – embedded in relationships with helpful others – are the building blocks of hope and meaning.
What role do other persons play in our awareness of our self?
The popular attitude is that I shall not allow others to define me and that I need not explain my decisions to anyone. We often hear people saying: “Nobody will tell me what I may or may not do., or how I should do it.” It is true that others can imprison us through their expectations of us, and through manipulation and fear. We tend to defend and protect ourselves, to withdraw behind the expectations of society and family. Or, we react with anger and behaviour that we hope will destroy the threat and often only destroy relationships.
For me, photos provide a nice metaphor to understand the role of other persons in our lives. Most photos have a focus point – an object that is in sharp focus and thus defined as an object. That is me. But the object is always captured against a background (even sometimes merely white or black or out of focus) that foregrounds the object. It is in a relationship with others that we can find our voice, our true self, where we discover freedom.
Our neighbours, friends, family, colleagues can help us to discover our true self through their acts of love and kindness. Their words of wisdom and insight can open doors through which we can enter and begin to understand our behaviour. They can help us to see the flaws in the mental pictures we paint about ourself and others. In that way, they help us to become free from deception and fear.
During the following weeks, I will reflect more on his question.
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I will regularly post articles, commentary or refer to other relevant material. I will write about my experiences and learnings, about research and things people told me as I journey through life – looking back and forward and observe that which happens around me. I will write about coaching, relationships, conflict, a healthy lifestyle, faith and philosophy. Johan