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Thought Thursdays
Endings and beginnings

tt107.jpgI speak to you as a leader. I imagine you walking alongside me, as we need to walk far across the beautiful African landscape. I assume we share the same ethos as leaders: to make the most of our continent with all the rich resources with which it is endowed. It then makes sense for us, rushing to the end of 2017, to reflect on endings and beginnings and the things in between as we push forward to achieve the enduring Pan African vision of "an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven and managed by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena".

To be candid with you, this vision, conceived by the African Union, seems very far removed from our everyday lives. Between that aspirational goal and where we, as Africa's 'own citizens' find ourselves at this moment, there are so many other granular beginnings and endings that impact our thinking, emotions and behaviours. Nearing the end of 2017 and thinking back, the spectrum is overwhelming. Deaths, both natural and unnatural. Births. Divorces. Breakups. Marriages. Ends of working careers. New careers. Closing of companies. Retrenchments. In all of this, it is at times difficult to believe the pop group Semisonic when it sings: "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end", as if we inevitably see the new beginning in every ending. Do you and I, as leaders, have a task rooted in the life dynamics of people's endings and beginnings? After all, life is such a continuum of endings and beginnings that people should surely be well-versed and -practised in it. Not so?

Herein lies our leadership task: moving from the granular towards the grand vision. We should not ignore the pain of leaving behind; indeed we should acknowledge that people feel bereaved of what was familiar to them and experience various degrees of uncertainty about what may lie ahead. You and I, at home, at work, in society, ought to acknowledge the impact of endings and honour the good that formed part of it; but then, more than ever, we need to ignite in ourselves and in others the future-directed mindset. Not in a cook-book formula style. As leaders, we understand people's attachment orientation and know that their preparation for and view of endings differ. It is our task, when called upon, to facilitate and guide perspectives on the new beginnings.

We have to acknowledge that we have social, economic and political conditions in our country and our continent that created too many social, economic and political monsters – be those in people or institutions. It is like George Orwell's Animal Farm: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." It has gone too far. It needs to come to an end. We, as leaders, need to recognise that we do not have a 'Z' problem we have a 'C' challenge: a character challenge. Our Z problems are the symptoms of our C challenges. A bumper-sticker philosopher says it well: "a crisis won't break you or make you. It will just reveal you for who you are." Your character will be revealed.

The most meaningful work we can do for ourselves is to work on our inner theatre, and specifically on our character or ethos (remember the statement attributed to Socrates that "An unexamined life is not worth living"). Our character informs all we do, whether as president of the country, as CEO of the business, or as parent of children. It also informs us on how to deal with endings and beginnings. It informs us about the direction of our lives and what we see as the endgame. It informs us when to end our tenure in a particular role, or to desist from behaviour that is not conducive for good relationships or our own well-being. It informs us if, when and how to begin or end things. It helps us to question our attachment orientation and why we refuse to end the old and begin with the new. It guides us in dealing with uncertainty once we have made the choice; how to embrace the transition moment (sweet, bitter, bittersweet) between the old and the new.

Erica Jong writes:

I know beginnings,
their sweetnesses,
and endings,
their bitternesses –
but I do not know
continuance –

We do need continuance. As we walk the African landscape together, to meet the advent of 2018, we both know that endings and beginnings are part and parcel of our lives. Sometimes we choose the ending and sometimes the ending chooses us. Although we cannot control the latter, we mostly do have control of the former. I have a hunch that the more our ethical and critical reflections bring us to choosing the ending, the fewer uncontrollable endings there will be. Whatever happens: life is an adventure. The good and the bad bring twists and turns. Our character needs to guide our responses and how we best take responsibility for what we end and begin as we move towards "an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven and managed by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena". As leaders, you and I are merchants of hope. We present an aspirational future as a way of creating meaning for what we currently experience. A. A. Milne, in The House at Pooh Corner, writes: "But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."

May you, in 2018, have wisdom and courage on this African adventure as we lift our eyes above the current reality.

As I left China farther and farther behind, I looked out of the window and saw a great universe beyond the plane's silver wing. I took one more glance over my past life, then turned to the future. I was eager to embrace the world. – Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans 


Frik Landman is CEO of USB Executive Development (USB-ED). 

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