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An Invitation to Wholehearted Leadership

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By Judy Sikuza

“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” – Bill O’Brien

In her seminal TED Talk entitled The Power of Vulnerability, research professor and storyteller Dr Brené Brown shares how her research on the topic of connection unexpectedly introduced her to a group of people she calls the wholehearted. The wholehearted have a strong internal sense of love and belonging, and believe they are worthy of love and belonging from others. What they have in common is: courage, compassion, connection, and vulnerability – which although standalone characteristics – are very much interrelated, as the act of one is often informed by the existence of the other. These features are often undervalued when talking about leadership in Africa; but I believe we are living in a time which requires that we put these at the centre of our leadership. If honed and applied consistently, these qualities can result in us leading more humanely, effectively, and in transformative ways for the greater benefit of all.

1. Courage

Inherent in the term courage is the ability to face head on the challenge or obstacle, regardless of the fear that may exist. Words that often spring to mind include bravery, nerve, and fortitude, especially when facing an intractable oppressive group or system. These elements of courage are crucial to possess, especially when required to stand firmly on our moral convictions for the greater good. A component of courage we often fall short in however, which the wholehearted group possess, is the courage to be imperfect.

Essayist Anaïs Nin once said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” When we are courageous enough to embrace being imperfect in our leadership – being willing for example, to take calculated risks by following uncharted paths in our strategies or programmatic components – we expand possibilities for ourselves, our teams, and the impact of our work. The need to have the perfect plan before implementing may limit the ability to innovate at the right opportunity. Often trying new approaches that will bring about significant shifts in our organisations or sectors involves being agile enough to adapt and iterate as we progress in the implementation because the “perfect” tactic we had in our strategizing looks very different when implementing. Leadership which sets a culture that encourages people to have courage to be imperfect allows the organisation to be more ambitious in what it can achieve in this fast-paced, ever changing, imperfect world.

A crucial element for me to a culture that embraces the courage to be imperfect is cultivating what Professor of Psychology at Stanford University Dr Carol Dweck and her colleagues termed the growth mindset. This is the capacity to understand that abilities, skills, competences, and intelligence can be continuously developed over one’s lifespan. This is contrary to a fixed mindset, which believes that traits and talents are fixed – you either have the goods or you don’t. Such people often avoid problems or conflicts out of a fear of failure. They are most likely the ones who will lack the courage to be imperfect.

Often leaders confuse the pursuit of excellence, with the unyielding demand for perfection.A leadership that embraces a growth mindset relinquishes the need to be perfect, or demand perfection from those they lead. Instead with a growth mindset, they create a culture where team members feel safe to experiment with ideas, and see shortcomings in efforts and results not as failure, but opportunities to learn and grow. Most great inventions in the arts, science and technology were achieved from a growth mindset. So we only sell ourselves short and our potential to be innovative when we don’t have the courage to be imperfect. And to simply try, try, and try again. Knowing that each attempt after “failure” was not failing at all. But from learning, improving, and growing.

2. Compassion

Leading from a wholehearted place means being compassionate – this is being kind to ourselves first, as we cannot practice compassion for others if we do not start within. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu note in The Book of Joy, “Self-compassion is closely connected to self-acceptance…it is actually having compassion for our human frailties and recognizing that we are vulnerable and limited like all people. As a result, it is a fundamental basis for developing compassion for others. It is hard to love others as you love yourself, if you don’t love yourself.” A lot of what we see then when talking about leadership in Africa, is a lack of self-love and compassion that gets projected onto organisations, communities, and whole societies. The big man or big woman syndrome – rule by fear and might – is really a defence mechanism to hide away insecurities that haven’t been dealt with about one’s inherent self-worth. When you accept your human frailties, you show up in a much more compassionate, open, trusting and considerate way in your leadership.

A crucial component of compassionate leadership involves self-care. All too often, leaders are invited to take up multiple responsibilities as they are seen as the important voices in their fields. What results is saying yes to everything, and then halfway through preparing and delivering on the various commitments, leaders find themselves feeling burnout and nearing mental breakdown. The ultimate skill of course is having the self-compassion to say no in advance as you see the number of commitments rising and the potential overload they may bring. The skill to choose your own wellbeing is one that will pay huge dividends in how effective we can actually be in our leadership as we create the spaciousness to really lead by being more present. But if we are already on the train of having taken on too much, we push forward into the depths of the night, for weeks on end, eating and drinking whatever stimulants will keep us awake to get the job done to the standards we believe we need to keep delivering at. And although we may come out “triumphant” at the end, leading from this place will eventually have dire consequences for us, our teams, and  the value of our work.

Quite recently, I had to face my own human frailties and practice self-compassion (reluctantly) by declining to moderate a gathering I was looking forward to hosting. I needed to rest from the flu I was struggling with, so I could show up more grounded and rested for the remaining events I was responsible for. Once I made the decision to tap out, I cried in the hotel bed, and then in the shower, angry that I didn’t have the physical fortitude to carry on. But I had “pushed through” on too many prior occasions at a cost, so I knew that I needed to be self-compassionate because I had a great team that could run with things in my absence. As it turned out, going home to rest was the best thing I could have done for myself, and my ability to successfully deliver on all the other gatherings I was holding space for. And of course inevitably, that small act of my willingness to step away and give myself self-compassion, resulted in my team getting to practice their own sense of leadership, and in some of the participants writing me touching notes on how my action inspired them to be more compassionate on their own leadership journeys. After that I finally understood what author Mary Anne Radmacher meant by: “courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”

3. Connection

Neurobiologically, we are wired to feel connected to each other. As Dr Brené Brown found in her research, people who embody wholeheartedness feel a sense of connection to others as a result of authenticity. This involves letting go of who they thought they should be, in order to be who they really are. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson aptly put it: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” The world we live in does not make it easy for us to feel like we can be our authentic selves, especially within the work context. But if we want to be effective in our leadership, and establish genuine connections with others, being our authentic selves gives us the best chance of success in our broader efforts to effect change.

Whenever I have felt disconnected in my leadership journey, it was when I tried to be who I am not. I can recall the anxiety I felt when designing content and material of a programme in a way that I didn’t resonate with, but assumed that was what was expected of me. Ironically, those sections of the programme I was uncomfortable with inevitably ended up not landing with the participants either, and the following year I designed what felt more appropriate for the conversations we were curating, which were embraced fully by the participants. Another inauthentic moment that was equally anxiety inducing was when I was preparing for a panel in a way that put unreasonable expectations on myself to be an expert on areas I did not know much about, instead of bringing in my authentic voice as my unique perspective was why I was invited in the first place. The lesson from both these examples and more is that when we bring our authentic selves in our leadership, it creates a space for others to do similarly. I have felt most alive and most connected to others in my work and leadership when I have brought my authentic self. When we bring our highest selves, it begins to build a sense of genuine connection and trust; which allows for achieving so much more in our change efforts than in an organisation, community, or government filled with disconnected people, who don’t know or trust each other.

4. Vulnerability

Probably the most taboo subject to raise when talking about leadership in Africa is vulnerability. However, the research by Dr Brown showed that wholehearted people fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They saw vulnerability as a necessary component of life. However, the value of vulnerability in leadership often splits people, for understandable reasons.

The coin of vulnerability has two sides to it. The upside is what Dr Brown found in her research which is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love. The other side of the coin is the core of fear, shame, and struggle for worthiness. So if you tussle with your sense of self-worth, believing that you are not good enough or deserving enough, then you are most likely to struggle with vulnerability. Because from that place, you see your vulnerability as opening up room to possibly being harmed psychologically, emotionally and maybe even physically. And so you feel a sense of shame, which is the fear of disconnection. A fear that there may be something about the self that won’t make it worthy of connection because one is not good enough.

The encouraging thing is Dr Brené Brown reminds us from her work that there are no prerequisites to worthiness. You are just worthy. As you are. In all your complex, unconventional, beautiful ways. And my own assertion is that if you listen to the essence of your inner voice, you too know that who are at your core is enough. Because the world does not need the second rate version of you that thinks it has to be a certain way. The world needs the essence of you. That thing that keeps you awake at night. Alive to the possibility of what you could contribute to the world. In making it better. Even if for one more person.

And so, as a young, Black, queer woman in leadership in Africa, I have often struggled with my sense of worthiness. Can I really aspire to be a leader in a continent that shuns who I am at my core? A continent that I love so deeply with all my heart because I have touched, and smelled, and heard, and resonated with the music of the heart of its people. Does my passion for the possibility of what we could be as a continent have a voice when I equally carry the fear that by being courageous, and vulnerable in my true authentic self I put myself at risk in a continent that has distorted views about who is worthy of love, human rights and dignity?

When I truly answer the questions above without fear, I know that the answer is simply yes. The many years working with people from across the African continent have shown me a courage, compassion, connection and vulnerability in our people beyond my expectations.  I have received some of the most beautiful words of affirmation and letters from people who felt a renewed sense of humanity because who I was in my vulnerability birthed a place of joy, creativity, belonging, and love for them, beyond the preconditioning of their upbringing. That my authenticity inspired in them their own courage to be their true, highest selves.

So it seems, the tricky thing about vulnerability then, is a willingness to do something where there are no guarantees. But which we hope in the sincerity of the act of opening ourselves up, can have the greatest positive rewards. It is a double-edged sword in a sense. Because by protecting ourselves to avoid getting hurt, we inevitably fail to fully enjoy intimate and close relationships in our work, family, friendships and broader society. And when I reflect on my leadership journey over the past decade, the times when my leadership has been most fulfilling and impactful on those around me, is when I have been willing to be vulnerable enough to share what is sitting in my heart about life, the society we live in, and my fellow human beings returning the act of vulnerability by sharing their own struggles, questions, and possibilities for how we can create the humane and connected communities we all desire.

In conclusion then, the invitation to wholehearted leadership is no easy feat. It involves essential qualities that need to be constantly refined and practiced daily in our leadership. It requires us to have the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to accept our own human frailties and those of others, and the authenticity to be who we really are so we can genuinely connect with those we are trying to achieve a common goal with. And most demanding of all, wholehearted leadership requests that we see the necessity and beauty inherent in being vulnerable, and the positive benefits it brings in terms of joy, creativity, belonging and love. Because in the final analysis, when I look at some of the core problems we face as a society today, the benefits of vulnerability applied for the greater good, make it worth the risk.

About the author

Judy Sikuza
(South Africa & NMMU, 2007)