We Are All Leaders Now

As Graça Machel observed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death marks, “the last of an extraordinarily outstanding generation of leaders that Africa birthed and gifted to the world.” Whilst this is true in many ways, a number of us have conscientiously been developing ourselves and the next generation of leaders and we are ready to step up.

Today’s emerging leaders are different though, for our times and our challenges are different. The era of big men, no matter how magnanimous, has indeed passed and each one of us, particularly those of us in South Africa, are being asked to answer the call. We who have stood in the shade of greats, sinking our roots and preparing ourselves, are now ready to provide the gift of our presence for others.

All around us we see evidence of rising unemployment, a country still riven by apartheid’s scars and many young people in particular feel climate anxiety acutely. These challenges are endemic and, frighteningly, potentially unsolvable and so I take heart from Václac Havel’s sage advice that, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well. It is the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.

“What is worth doing?” This is the question I ask myself, and have been asking for many years now, and I know I am not alone. In the early years when I was leading a free-to-student business school that I co-founded, I would travel with our students to the mountains where they engaged in a wilderness leadership programme and I would stay up and vigil when they undertook their overnight solos. What, I would ask the stars, was my role in their lives? What was mine to do? The answer came clearly, and has remained, simply, “Bear witness.”

When they returned to base camp in the morning, we gathered in a circle and these young people bravely – and often for the first time – shared their life stories. Almost all of them were characterised by abandonment in some way. Never knowing their father, growing up without their mother, having to raise siblings whilst still young themselves. It was agonising to hear, over and over again, how apartheid cleaved divisions not just between races but family members too. And so, over the years that have followed, my greatest joy has been to witness our students and graduates and the quality of parenting that they are offering their own children. This was never in the curriculum at TSIBA but somehow, to a tee, they know that their presence is important and foundational and they offer this abundantly. 

Each of us knows intuitively that it falls to us, individually and collectively, to tend what the generation before us could not offer or complete, and those of us who are adults now can and must stay in the room. Though being present may feel like a trite solution to the complex challenges that we face today, I believe that it’s the place to begin. Those of us who are parents now (and aunts and uncles and grandparents) are bequeathing a world with intractable dilemmas to our young people. We have not figured out how solve these challenges and in many ways we just seem to be digging a deeper hole for ourselves, hoping that a breakthrough technological solution, a decisive  leader or the next generation will offer us a way out. Maybe it’s time to focus less on fixing and doing and, as least as much, on listening and being? 

The scientist Gus Speth observed that, “I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.” Maybe it’s time to make a seat at the table for soul?

Generous presence is something that every one of us can offer.  We may not have answers or solutions but we can role model a way of being that our local leaders especially have shown us. How to break bread together, how to forgive, how to choose love over fear, how to build bridges and make the counter-intuitive choice, over and over again. We saw this so vividly in South Africa in the wake of riots in July 2021 that swept much of our country when, in the morning, ‘ordinary’ people would emerge unbidden with brooms and black bags and quietly begin cleaning up.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also demonstrated, quite acutely, that clever strategies or lone individuals cannot help us much and that connection and community are essential and life-giving. In this vein, in his recent article On Death and The Climate Crisis: We’ve woken the dragon and the adults have left the building, Peter Willis sketches out what a third way in between the perilous temptations of optimism and denialism could look like. He writes about the, “simple and intimate medicine” of  creating “accessible opportunities to sit with small-enough groups of one’s fellow citizens, share one’s own questions and fears and listen to them share theirs.”

As emerging leaders and elders, we need to support each other so that we can stand steady for our children. Especially when it feels as if the world is falling in on us we can, like Leonardo di Caprio’s character in the movie, “Don’t Look Up”, initiate calm, connected gatherings around our tables at home with family and friends and then begin extending our circle. This simple and ongoing stance of quietly holding and bearing witness, of not turning away from what feels frightening and still unresolved, of honouring our interconnectedness, is what feels worth doing, now more than ever.

Now that the last of our great trees has fallen there is no buffer between us and the Mystery of the Beyond. We need to step into this breach and begin preparing in earnest to be ancestors ourselves. We need to hold our children, our country and our world through increasingly turbulent times. We can do this. We are doing this, each and every one of us.