“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again. Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
(Excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic” Sorbonne, Paris, April 1910).
Silence. 15 faces – focused and etched with determination; fifteen human beings – wanting beyond all else to heed the call; to dare greatly.
And in that silence the sense of personal shift in this small group of leaders was tangible; the desire to escape from the suffocating clutches of criticism of self and others; the desire to stop whinging and blaming and to take responsibility; the desire to be involved – sweaty and dirty and bloodied – in the solutions for their company and their country – was palpable.
In that conference room in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal 15 people stepped into the arena as the words of Theodore Roosevelt spoke to them across time; challenging them – challenging me – to become active citizens of our Republic.
By means of a little background, I recently had the privilege to journey into the arena with these leaders from Richard’s Bay Minerals. I facilitated their 5 day leadership development programme. They facilitated one of the most inspiring weeks of my life. For their willingness to change and grow; to be open and vulnerable; to reach out to one another in spite of their differences – to step into the arena – was something I have seldom experienced to such a degree.
What they taught me is that the arena means different things to us all. The insight is that there are areas in all of our lives that we have bailed out of; that we have disconnected from and that we need to re-engage with. For some this is our work: our boss or our colleagues. For others it might be our spouse, the kids, our place of worship, our community or even our country.
And we are terrified to get into these arenas for fear that we may get hurt or fail. So we sit on the side-lines throwing insults and points of correction to those who are slugging it out in the arena; our boss, our teammates, politicians, pastors, our parents – other parents, other couples, because generally speaking we are excellent – especially here in South Africa – at criticising those who are in the arena.
But over those 5 days these 15 leaders strode boldly and bravely into their personal arenas and – in doing so – set an example for all of us living in 2014 South Africa. They faced their challenges with authenticity and vulnerability; they confronted the demons that exist in so many of us in post- apartheid South Africa; they acknowledged their need to take responsibility – complete responsibility – for the world they inhabit; for the people they lead; they picked apart their stereotypes; they laughed at themselves and wept at themselves; and they challenged the thinking that is keeping us all so boxed-in and separate. They went there. They went into the arena.
And the power of organisations like Richards Bay Minerals being prepared to go into the arena themselves and take their people along with them cannot be overstated. When employers of literally thousands of South Africans invest in individual and corporate change; reconciliation, tolerance, inclusion, gender equality and cultural diversity – they fundamentally alter the future of our nation.
They recognise that an integral part of one’s existence in South Africa – whether as a company or as an individual – is to encourage citizens to get out of the cheap seats and into the arena; to play their part; to heal the deep wounds and schisms that still afflict each and every one of us to this day. They are taking that responsibility extremely seriously indeed.
And to you and I; the common man; the ordinary citizen. We must seek the courage to stride (back) into the arena. This will mean different things for each of us. For me it means to be a devoted husband and father and to continually stand up and be counted as a citizen who is prepared to put my money where my mouth is; not just to speak but to act – even when that action appears to change very little; to dare to play my part in making South Africa the nation we all know it can be.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.