Paradoxical Christian Leadership

I was flown down to Cape Town to do two four-hour teachings to students at the African Leadership Institute for Community Transformation. I dreaded it and despised the fact that I have to go speak to strangers who consider themselves Christians, yet wanted to talk about conflict and vision buy-in. I was not excited and would not have said yes if my boss didn’t ask me to go. Nevertheless I went. Day one was good. Day two turned out to be electrifying. It was utterly unexpected.
I very seldom write religious blogs and these days I seldom do religious talks. In fact, I’m on a bit of a secular pilgrimage that employs downplay with the aim to purify and bring into focus the things from my childhood that I have lost. These are things of integrity, naivety, belief and goodness. I figured out that the only way for me to get closer to Christ, was to walk away from him. Jesus said we have to lose our life to find it, I believe the same applies to our faith. You have to lose it to get it.
The reason is simple, in that the faith we think we have is not the pure love of God, but a stained, coloured, dirty version of mixed up sentiments and dogmatic beliefs that hinder more than it helps. To say something smart, we first need to shut up. I have to daily place my beliefs and religion at His feet, acknowledging I don’t know shit. In the abandonment of knowing the answers and in the sacrifice of adherence to cheap shortcut rules (like not swearing), I find a rawness that provides enough texture for the Salt to take effect. My spiritual journey takes one step forward and two steps back. What I’m discovering is that that is appropriate, since I am supposed to go backwards and downwards; away from my cleverness and away from my ambitions.
Back to the second day in Wellington with the young Christian leaders. I tried to deconstruct the notion of leadership as influence, by opposing it to Sen’s idea of development as the freedom to choose. In that sense many ‘christian’ attempts to lead are not Christian at all, because to really love and respect someone we should assist them to make their own choices and thus develop. We should not be aiming to influence people towards buying into our vision. It is ironic that Christian ‘leaders’ get taught to lead and not to follow. There is a degree of glorious influence and leadership, but only if it is born from a following and a supporting. Jesus was so strong that he was weak. He ended up ridiculed and killed. Yet we struggle to draw such image into our definitions and praxis of leadership. I’m tempted to say screw leadership, because the word is tainted. And yes, if you are smart you would realise that my desire to say ‘fuck leadership’ is the same as my ascetic journey that denies the luxury of Christian talk. We have to walk away, in order to arrive at a radical rediscovery. Such discoveries cannot be read or learnt from others. It has to be walked.
By writing this blog on both Jesus and Leadership I undermine my own journey, I release my godly tension of insecure blindness and muteness. I engage in sweet temptation of analysis and I do this sin willingly and sober. Such is the strength of my carnal mind and wimpy ego.

In search of an unnamed life-skill

I’m writing from frustration. I’m typing on thin ice because my mind is confused by stereotypes and associations that might or might not be accurate. I will choose my words carefully and hide some info deliberately, to protect myself. The smart reader though probably already knows what I’m going to hide… these days almost anything is permissible, but not quite everything. So let me play with my words in a way that wont leave me open to attack.

I care greatly about development and social justice. I feel passionate about reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. Now, I am disgusted and uninspired by the rich daily and can write pages about the in vain nature of their vanity and the sadness of their fearful ambition. Indeed I do write about that mostly. But this post is not about the rich, nor the middle class.
I start by reflecting on things I think I learnt from my parents, and maybe from my teachers and other leaders as I grew up. I was privileged to learn these things. Still, and this is a big point, I still had to learn them. Privilege did not change me, my reaction to learning moments changed me. Many Afrikaners did not choose in the same way. So I’m lucky, but I also had to learn to use my luck. Small things like, trustworthiness. Doing what you said you will do. Doing your best and trying to improve, even the little things. Caring and caring about things that is not about me. Applying my mind to show initiative and problem solving, instead of blaming or feeling sorry for myself.

What is this life-skill called? Professionalism? Work ethic? Communication? Responsibility? Drive? Perfectionism? It’s a bit of all of these but not only one, yet I struggle. It’s a bit like I want to call it ‘pullingyourfingeroutofyourassability’. I see so many young people today that have very high ambition and even good opportunities, people who are very smart, but somehow they do not apply themselves. I wonder if it is about ‘not caring’ or ‘not making the link between small actions and the big picture’?
Every second is an opportunity to market yourself. Every second is a job interview. And if a youngster that feels life has been against him or her faces a situation whilst knowing there was a $1million reward, I know they could execute perfectly. I have seen it a thousand times. But because the reward is not an immediate pile of cash, but small incremental progressions, people do not do their best. The ladder from bottom to top is long and consists of many small steps. There is no jumping. Is there a lack of role-models? Does the individual whose first car is a Jaguar perhaps confuse the young leader? Does the past hurts and resentments somehow cause a feeling that refuse to work to the top the hard way?

I would not mind if God or the courts forcefully handed out social justice and I will continue to do my bit. But somewhere a realisation has to dawn, like the Afrikaners did not beg from but competed with the English, so today one needs to start taking one’s future in your own hands. We need instead of blaming and feeling victimised to grasp the small wins in front of us and the biggest win you can get is a chance to improve on your personality, skills and character. It’s not about degrees and diplomas… Its about those small things… can someone give you a simple task and forget about it knowing you will definitely make it happen? To be honest what I’m seeing is that there is an extreme lack of such basic skills, such reliability and pride in performance, especially if no one is around to punish or reward. Small actions write big stories, for the good or the bad.
Typically me, I cannot end by blaming the poor for making stupid decisions. We must fight for equal opportunities and fair exposure. Yet, some people will grasp their new opportunities and others wont. Stopping at a traffic light and looking at the people around me proves my point. I write out of frustration, but also out of solidarity and love, that is why I feel honestly, lovingly frustrated. I will understand accusations of being paternalistic, patronising or even narrow minded. This is just how I feel at present and I resent the lack of leadership when it comes to modelling the basics. Everyone talks a good game, but when the rubber hits the road there is an embarrassing vacuum that everyone is too shy to talk about.

Tomorrow I will be apologetic and understanding again. I know its not my place to challenge, but this one had to slip out.

Radical Development

We associate ‘radical’ with something new and crazy, but radical actually means getting back to the root, the original, rootedness. So, my radical notions of development is in fact old school. To learn, to listen, to have and show respect, to build friendship and trust… these are way older than interventions, outputs, and all sorts of technical project management jargon.

The rich has been doing development (outreach/ engagement/ mission/ involvement/ investment… call it what you want) in a perverted unauthentic way that cost them little and basically serve their own needs more than that of those they intend to help. I include myself, sadly. Fake Development vs Radical Development is perhaps an idealistic duality, perhaps the realistic choice, considering how Westerners engage these days, should be fake development vs no development. Again, you might think I am too harsh, too critical… but I am not alone!

Last night as I lay in bed at 2 a.m., not managing to sleep I started googling and discovered a speech by Ivan Illich (1926-2002). Illich speaks not about radical development, but rather fake development. His suggestions are radical, very radical:

READ IT HERE!

Suitability

I do not own a suit. I own three formal jackets, which I normally wear with jeans. It’s the closest to a compromise I get; playing with the big boys who earn big bucks, sitting in leather chairs driving big cars. Every time I meet them I wonder whether they got into their chairs through perseverance, luck, connections or actual brilliance. Anyway, my jacket and jeans protects me, underplays me.
To be clear, suits are silly, as are ties. But it is an evil that exist, a symbol that endures- and so every man has to at some stage square up to a suit. If you are not up to it, rather stay away from suits than exposing yourself. Its all a paradox and compromise- I hate it, I love it. One day I will probably buy a suit. But only after I complete a Doctorate or write a book, only after I produce stuff that people call brilliant. Suits are not for humility, but about power. And power should embody both intellect and integrity.
Most clowns wear suits to try and get to the top. Nothing as bad as a man that cannot wear a suit- the material and design outclasses them, they look silly and wannabe. The opposite is a too modern, too tailored suit that looks fashionable instead of classy. As for the suits worn by older men, they paint pictures of tragic men hiding flabby bellies under expensive clothes. They fail to inspire. Few men wears suits with class without giving the idea that they cheated their way to the top. Mostly I associate suits with theft, legal and subtle, but still theft- oblivious of the poor.
So, my time for wearing a suit might come. When I’m older and smarter. When it suits me.

Seeing Good

My life is not a rosy one of thank-you’s and celebration.
It is a struggle that continues; inside and out.
Daily I doubt humanity and I doubt myself.
Today I received two sentences in two emails that allows me time to reflect, time to be ok:

“… I appreciated it a lot. It made me really seeing things.” Said by a European middle-aged man who is blind. After spending an afternoon listening to me in Mamelodi.

“…Finally a dream came true!!! I can now die!!! We are half way there!!!” said by a 50 year old Mozambican man after seeing progress made on a construction site and football field.
These are two smart and special people. That I could be part of a positive sentence in a short email has weight. Maybe for them, but more so for me, for the way my mind works.

Feelback vs Feedback

Money, despite my naive dreams and desires are seldom free. The most common payback for development- or charitable money is the Report. Some come in the form of newsletters, some as websites or blogs, some as fridge magnets, some as text messages, some as an emotional emails or even a phone call or gift made by locals.

In general I think some people want feedback due to notions of stewardship, responsibility, accountability or most obvious control. Others don’t really want this type of feedback, they just want feelback and that is why beneficiaries start to ‘play’ them. Donors want to feel that sense of significance and legacy, they want to feel like they make a difference, they want to feel that their hard earned money makes them a hero. Often they think, because they had the skills and opportunity to access money, that they are smarter than those they give the money to. These beneficiaries will do well to keep the kind-hearted, unselfish donor in the loop. Neglect can have dire consequences, but these consequences will never be regognised as punishment, rather euphemistic ‘out of sight out of heart’ rhetoric. These days it seems like a fair demand to ‘be in touch’ and ‘be personally involved’ with those getting your cash. It sounds great and are indeed a similar shadow of the ideal relational philosophy, but don’t be fooled by these ‘connecting’ donors: they want feelback, not friendship. Feelback is a demand from people donating let’s say 10% of their income. However, true friendship will cost much more than 10% and that is way to risky a door for most ‘wealthy’ donors to open. They want feelback and transparency on their terms, at their time, in their format: friendships are more messy, more equal and more scary.

To summarise I recognise two types of feedback loops:

– Guillotine Reports: As in French Revolution, not office guillotine! The name says it all… give the report, the newsletter, the picture, or your funding will get the chop! Demand driven, with a myriad of manipulative tactics and games on both sides. Test: stop reporting for 6 months and see what happens… demands and subtle warnings or real concern and offers to assist with problems.

– Rainbow Reports: These are not even reports, maybe call them updates. Bottom line, they are unexpected, unique, a gift and sincere. This occurs when your money really made a difference and the recipient really appreciates you as a person or friend.

One of the above types of ‘feedback-loops’ are common and one is rare. One should be governed, critiqued and reduced; whilst the other should be encouraged, celebrated and desired.

Ubuntu Starts in the Mirror

Power is the ability to choose. The ability to choose to act and to influence. But before we reach the question of choosing what; there is the issue of simple choice and whether someone has the freedom to choose, whether they sense the freedom to choose.

This boils down to two things: hope and self-confidence. If I do not have an expectation of a better tomorrow and a confidence in my own worth and abilities, i will not be free to make great or even good choices.
I wrote this as a reflection on the obstacles to alleviate poverty, analyzing why people are stuck in destructive and stagnant patterns.

But as these principles are true as reasons why ‘the poor’ do not lift themselves out of material need, so they are equally pertinent as causal factors for the so called ‘rich’ to be stuck in lives of mediocre enslavement, addiction and fear.
The rich isolates themselves into clusters of gadget, style and security seeking robots and they lose hope in a life of meaning, dignity, sacrifice and learning. The chuck hope and settle for comfort. Why? The same reason as to why the youth living in a shack does not risk spectacular failure: the insecurity of self, the lack of really liking and loving yourself leaves you tied to the opinion of your ‘peers’ and you are to damn scared to be different.

Rich and poor… So close to each other, such identical struggles; yet we think we have nothing to share or talk about, besides the usual giggling about chicken feet, praising the rhythm of Africans, painting walls and daydreaming about fancy cars…Not sure if its sad or funny.

The CSI of CSI

When you go to a rural area, a township, a squatter camp; and you’re faced with poverty; the correct response is not to say “ah shame” and do some hand-outs, paint some walls, take pictures, put it in a newsletter… When you do CSI as in Corporate Social Investment, you should also do CSI as in Crime Scene Investigation. When you get to a ‘poor’ situation you should immediately say “a crime has been committed”. By who? Against who? What societal and social crimes have been committed in this place to leave young children so vulnerable? Who is the culprit? The rich. Did they do direct harm or is their crime perhaps that of apathy, neglect? Using the labour of the parents, but not paying them enough so they can school their kids?

The other day I thought, anyone driving a car worth more than R500 000 is somehow stealing from the poor. You can earn a lot, but if you use those earnings to splash exuberant luxury on yourself then you should be wondering if you are being humane, human or an animal. But I regress….

The cost of living is high, if you’re living a lie. If you need such expensive toys to make yourself feel better, you may be on the wrong track, your moral compass might be broken.

Maybe you and I are the criminals that the crime scene speaks of… And lets not get stuck on a figure. If we absorb luxury while others have unmet needs, we are criminals. Social criminals and that is not an easy truth to face. Just say Schalk is getting extreme again. Will that help? Mirrors can be scary.

Now, going to a poor area, seeing kids suffer, not getting their basic needs and rights met, that can surely make you feel sorry for them and you might be tempted to say “shame” “poor them”, it is very good to feel this, and you should feel pity, you should feel sad, even a bit guilty. Yet, you are allowed to feel that, but not say that! If you say it, you come across as patronizing and condescending. So feel it, just don’t say it! :-) Feel the pity, but act out of respect, act smart, act long-term. Do crime scene investigation, what is the cause of the poverty? What is the root of the problem? How is the wealthy implicated in this tragedy?

So to be the master of CSI, be a double CSI agent. For Corporate Social Investment you need to do Crime Scene Investigation…

That is the CSI of CSI.

Game On

It’s game on. The battle is on, a battle that will affect millions of lives. The issue is not the What? Where? or the Why? of Development, but the How?

Two paradigms are opposed. The dominant paradigm is so mainstream and it’s power lies in its inarticulate nature. It is assumed. This way of doing development aims to mimic corporate companies and employ business models and corporate managerialism.  The alternative paradigm is so hidden that most people do not even realise that it is a valid alternative: it is the way of doing development as family and friends.

The corporate model for example relies on paper, laws, rules, contracts, punishment and power. The relational model relies on trust, good times and friendship.

In my development work I am engaged in the battle between these paradigms every waking hour. The Corporate paradigm reveals itself in the way that M&E expresses power. The Relational paradigm is not realised far beyond that gut feel in practitioner’s hearts that something is not right. When a person turns into a Human resource and lives become projects, we can know we are slaves to the dominant paradigm.

The World Bank, USAID, and corporate CSI divisions maintain the managerialist approach. It makes them feel in control, it creates and illusion of predictability. But this way of doing projects, doing things, doing life has not made a dent in poverty. The design indicators and plans, they evaluate return on investment and outputs in time frames.

Yet, since people are not bricks, has it ever occurred to us that we should not act like engineers? Trying to run people like an engineer runs a construction project is not smart or professional, it is naive and stupid.

Once we remove the humanity from development, we are wasting our time and money and we are losing our dignity.

Will anyone fight back?

On Being Heroic

What gives meaning to life? This question assumes a supremacy over the question of how we can make life less scary. Two questions.

The former seeks life and fulfillment, the latter seeks safety and prediction.

Am I simplistic in saying our fear and doubt of self pushes us to this second rhythm of security and prevents a vibrancy of unpredictability.
To experience the fulness of human emotion, character, resolve and joy; we need to remain open and vulnerable. If we build walls around us with money, houses, jobs, degrees and orthodoxy we feel safe and successful, but we prevent streams of life to enter our being. That is why every person you meet is so fucking uninspiring.
They will make you feel like a fool for being naive, they will claim that your idealism is inferior to their investments and self obsessed drive for vanity, they will not just defend their skepticism, they will ridicule your belief in the good and better life.

There is only one way to live and that is as a hero.
Forget about leadership- leadership is an euphemism for vanity wrapped in moderation and position.
We need to look around and start fighting for what is right and missing.
Stressing about what is present and wrong can feel masochistically rewarding, but it wont give you life.
Imagine… Imagine how things can and should be, pursue that at whatever cost and you will find that it costs nothing at all.

What are the issues of the day? What gets you going, gets you angry, gets you sad? What situation requires your heroic intervention? Think small… not couch small, but listening, serving and learning small.

80 years to be a hero… What does that even mean? Where to start?

Changing your mind about some things…that might be heroic.