Today I was touched by an e-mail forwarded to me by a dear friend Dr Leann Munian. She is a Paediatrician who was writing a farewell note to her colleagues before transferring to another hospital.
In the note she wrote a fascinating line about a major shift in her thinking and her career that took place some time ago after a stint in Syria with Gift of the Givers:
“…I returned to the hospital of my birth, “to save the world”, “one baby at a time”.” What a remarkable thought process; that changing something as huge as the world can happen one very small baby at a time.
But it jogged my memory, because my dear friend and colleague Dr Rama Naidu puts the same thought in a slightly different way. Now for some context, this man is a world class agent of change who has impacted on countless numbers of people during his remarkable career. But he works in small groups of between 8 and 80 people at a time, facilitating their growth and development. He says: “We change the world one conversation at a time.” This echoes one of my gurus Peter Block who talks about changing the world “one room at a time; the room you are in.”
Another friend and colleague Dr Louise van Rhyn founder of Partners for Possibility – the world-renowned South African program that pairs school Principals from under resourced schools with business leaders in a transformative co-learnership – talks about changing the world “one partnership at a time.” There simply must be something in this thinking if all these doctors are saying the same thing!
But it sounds fanciful, even flaky, especially within the parameters of our Western thinking that is so dominated by outcomes, measurement and numbers. In the NGO field, tell a potential funder you save the world “one baby, one conversation, one partnership at a time”, they will smile and tell you to come back and talk when you have “taken your project to scale”. In the business world, have a conversation that is about change outside of the context of a rising bottom-line and you will quickly hear terms like “soft skills” being used.
We play this game because we must – or must we? It seems that all of us in any form of people-based, healing, transformation/change, “nation building” work have been on a journey to understand and accept that change and growth can only happen one of anything at a time. And this is on the positive spectrum. Just ask Adam Catzavalos how one racist WhatsApp message can change your life for the worse.
This may seem frustrating because we want positive change to happen quicker than this. It just doesn’t satisfy our hard-wired need – and the world’s expectation – for us to “deliver results” (aka numbers). It has taken me literally years to come to terms with this “one-by-one” thinking and I thank my friends above for always reminding me about this when I get frustrated by my own or our country’s seeming “lack of progress”.
This column is about each of us playing our part in the change we wish to see for our country and our world. So, the question is what is your “one at a time”? For my paediatrician friend it is a baby. For Rama it is a conversation. For Louise it is a partnership. For you it could be one customer at a time, one article at a time, one learner, one client, one staff member, one patient, one child.
The trick? Be for that person or situation everything you wish to see the world become.
Then the world will change. Not tomorrow or next week. But right now.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered and Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.
“We have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.” Research finding from 180 schools across nine states in America.
In an article published in the New York Times on March 12, 2018 entitled “Good Leaders Make Good Schools”*, writer David Brooks gives educators and principals a treasure trove of hints and tips on how to transform their schools. Citing research, he unpacks why some schools succeed whilst others fail. The main determining factor for success in schools? Strong Leadership.
Now the issue we face in basic education here in South Africa is that we tend to view school Principals as administrators, setters of schedules and conveners of meetings. But according to Brooks, these men and women set the culture of a school; they are highly visible and interact constantly with learners and teachers; they greet parents and students outside the front door in the morning. In the US-based research, the most successful principals make 20 to 60 spontaneous classroom visits and observations per week. That may not be attainable in many of our schools but the point is, how do we equip our principals to do more of what is needed to make schools great?
Love as well as Discipline
Brooks tells us that this character in society – the successful school principal – possesses such qualities as energy, optimism and determination. Our own Prof Jonathan Jansen has found that successful South African Principals are very compassionate and provide learners with love as well as discipline. They are also ‘social entrepreneurs’ who proactively engage with parents and communities to attract involvement, support and resources for their schools and to protect their schools from destabilizing outside forces.
Academy for School Principals?
But how do Principals become this way? Are you born a great school Principal or do you learn this skill? The sense one gets is that some of it is instinct and raw talent whilst the rest is fostered and nurtured in the individual. Now the urgent question becomes, who fosters and nurtures our school Principals to become these types of leaders? Is there an academy for school principals? The answer is of course, no. And this is one of the primary reasons why so many of our schools are struggling and why our education system is in crisis.
How can we capacitate our school Principals to be inspired and inspiring leaders? The answer lies in partnership; partnering them with leaders in other fields, as local and highly successful NGO Partners for Possibility (www.pfp4sa.org) is doing by pairing them with business leaders.
As we do this our schools will be transformed, one Principal at a time.
We recently had a dear uncle visit us from Singapore. He was surprised by the vast number of massive building projects he saw. The number of ‘cranes in the sky’ – a very good bellwether for the state of a countries economy – completely belied what he had heard about the perilous state of our economy.
Alas, we concluded, what a shame that these cranes were obviously an anomaly because we all know that South Africa is teetering on the edge of economic demise.
That week of my uncle’s visit, final quarter GDP growth figures for 2017 were released and the cranes had not been wrong after all. At 3.1% we had enjoyed the strongest growth rate in 6 quarters. This obviously does not mean we are shooting the lights out – and we certainly have major challenges ahead of us – but it does mean that we are growing.
Now the question is, what damage is done when we follow blindly and parrot liberally the lies and half-truths that generally support our political bent? If my uncle from Singapore – and incidentally he is in the forex business – is hearing nothing but bad news coming out of South Africa, you can be sure that this narrative is dominating worldwide. The phenomenon of what I call “narrative sheep syndrome” – blind followers of a particular storyline – will be impacting not only how we are viewed, but on foreign direct investment, tourism and of course employment and poverty levels. We are our own worst enemy.
Similarly – but perhaps even more damaging than the economy narrative – the last few months have been fraught with tension over the issue of land. This has been a worrying example of narrative sheep syndrome because the wrong story with this issue could lead to people fleeing the country and worse. We simply are unable to separate the facts from the fiction and we are being driven by fear that is precluding us from seeing the enormous possibilities that lie within land expropriation without compensation.
To give you a sense of the possibilities, just last week I was exposed to a totally fresh narrative around land and how it can work if we think differently. I had the privilege of spending a few days with colleagues on a remote and extraordinarily beautiful Free State farm. In a valley in the magnificent Maluti Mountains we felt like we were in another country; the way these people are living life again totally belies the news headlines that we had left behind.
Several years ago, new owners bought the land and immediately partnered with the local village residents. Now this in itself is nothing new. But what was new was how they were partnering. They placed respect, dignity and equality front and centre in a non-patriarchal partnership. The land became a holy space of cohabitation and production rather than a bone over which they would fight. We had the opportunity to spend an evening hearing the locals speak about the partnership and there was no hint of the depressingly usual: “Baas so-and-so has been so kind to us – we are so thankful.” This was a partnership in every sense of the word. For example, a lodge and conference centre have been built by local hands – but not by simply contracting them in as labour, but by inviting them to offer their skills and talents so that they are engaged in work that they enjoy. The farm is productive and is now at the centre of a successful cooperative. Oh and by the way, after generations of uncertainty, the owners have given the locals their land. They didn’t involve the authorities in this negotiation, they did it themselves; with the requisite honour and respect that was due to both parties. They sat together as partners and decided what would be right and fair and that was the number of hectares they agreed on.
This is a model of land redistribution that is working because people are willing to think differently and open their hands. Relationship has been prioritised over land.
This story flips the land narrative on its head. We can do this thing well – as we did with the transition to democracy – and be a shining light again to the rest of the world. They made it clear that it was hard work. But it is working.
South Africa is not an easy country to get a handle on and yet we persist in latching on to single, one-dimensional narratives that are dished up by political parties and consumed around dinner tables all over the country. We then spew them forth at every opportunity. These one-dimensional narratives render us powerless to play a role as active citizens. Not only that, but buying into them creates fear which robs us of the creativity that is required to overcome difficult issues.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.