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Lessons for Emerging Leaders

By Aydn Parrott

“Emerging leaders need to prepare their critical thinking for the war between what is and what could be” 

Aydn Parrott, writer and storyteller

I am a storyteller, one who hopes to not only tell but also rewrite the story of human history. But before I can rewrite the story of others I need to rewrite my own story.

First, however, I need to understand my story. Any story I tell starts with the impact of my father and his lessons.

One of his favourite sayings was from Heraclitus who said: “War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.” Heraclitus espoused the doctrine of change being central to the universe.

Covid-19 is by all definitions a crisis, a global pandemic that is currently and may permanently disrupt our way of life. I have no answers to how it may disrupt our life nor do I pretend to have the solutions to any problems that may arise.

At the end of any chess game with my father he says, “you can lose the game but never lose the lesson.” Any good lesson acts as a tool that forms part of a set. This set of tools helps us get ready to tackle the world.

Readiness for the world starts with preparation, as Vegetius said,  “Let him who wants peace prepare for war.” Emerging leaders need to prepare their critical thinking for the war between what is and what could be. They need to differentiate between balance and objectivity, be willing to adapt in the face of new information, be aware of automatic thoughts and reprogram those thoughts.

As a journalism student I was shocked to learn that good journalism is not about truth or objectivity. It is about balance. Hearing all sides of the story and having all details in hand. It is about providing the reader with those details so that they can make an informed decision. It is then up to the reader to be amenable to adapting to new information.

Like the reader we need to examine our own preconceptions. Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You’re beginning with an illogical premise and proceeding perfectly logically to an illogical conclusion.” He was saying this to a reporter.

Too often we make decisions and take action based on biased, unexamined and occasionally false premises. Leaders need to be aware of automatic thoughts and constantly attempt to reprogram our thoughts. As Marcus Aurelius explained it, “you have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength.”

Emerging leaders need to manage their thoughts. In my own life I have enhanced my critical thinking by reading, carefully selecting the people I surround myself with and always trying to learn from failures.

As an English Literature major in undergraduate I read to broaden my knowledge of literature, culture history, current affairs and how they shape each other. My postgraduate degree in journalism and my love of politics required similar in-depth reading to stay well informed.

Reading ultimately provides me with a broader frame of reference which enables me to better contextualise and connect events and ideas.

“Never surround yourself with people who expect too little of you,” another piece of advice from my father. He encourages me to expose myself to people who will have a positive effect on my thinking and actions.

That is not to say only people who think and act like you because that will leave you in an echo chamber of complacency. My father always says “wasted talent is a terrible thing”. As such people who lull you into complacency will leave you with much unrealised potential.

After playing chess my father loves to say, “you can lose the game but don’t lose the lesson”.

It is important to open up to experience. Author Brené Brown says, “hope is a function of struggle. If we’re never allowed to fall or face adversity as children, we are denied the opportunity to develop the tenacity and sense of agency we need to be hopeful.”

This is why it is important to do, to fail, to learn and to repeat as Nicholas Haralambous writes. Emerging leaders need to reflect on their experience and include that in their set of tools to tackle the next challenge.

Niccolo Machiavelli, Isiah Berlin and Clem Sunter have all used the fox as an allegory of the human. Emerging leaders need to be like the fox, “the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognise traps and a lion to frighten wolves,” Machiavelli says. Lifelong learning is the key to feeding one’s inner fox.

Traditional education such as schools and universities are essential for learning key ideas, developing professional skills, and learning in a safe environment. Informal education teaches lessons applicable to all aspects of life, lessons learned through experience (losing the game), involvement in sport, community service, and private enterprise taking risks.

Often networks we develop through involvement in these activities also contribute invaluably to our informal education.

Mentors are also a great way to enhance formal and informal education. For most of my life my father was a key mentor. Upon entering university I sought the mentorship of a civil servant whose qualification level and body of work matched that which I hoped to attain. During my postgraduate studies a lecturer who I shadowed in his work at Parliament became a friend and mentor.

Proactively pursuing formal and informal education as well as good mentors is essential in developing the thinking of emerging leaders. Being a fox and engaging in lifelong learning leads to greater resilience and flexibility.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand was the consummate fox. He kept his ears close to the ground. Always listening for change and taking action based on the latest information. There are mixed feelings about Talleyrand as a values-based leader. But his ability to adapt is unquestionable.

Ciaran Conliffe says, “he is practically unique, as nobody else managed to move through the dangerous waters of the time without falling prey to them. Yet as regime swapped out for regime Talleyrand effortlessly rode from one wave to the next.” Talleyrand was adaptable in a way that many emerging leaders today are not. Adaptability starts with lifelong learning.

In South Africa a debate rages on about the decolonisation of higher education. Cultural differences which have affected workplace, classroom and political conduct are being re-examined.

The debate can be divided into those who wish to reject what are perceived as “colonial institutions and hegemony” and those who see education as a more scientific rejection and acceptance of evidence based research.

The discussion is about whether or not there is a way to marry the differing sides of the debate or whether a messy divorce is inevitable. In his book Healing the Heart of Conflict, Marc Gopin says, “minor disagreements are often quite healthy, and a diversity of opinions prod us to make creative decisions, to see the big picture, to achieve our potential.”

Emerging leaders should encourage disagreement and discussion among themselves and their communities. In this way they can start taking steps towards encouraging understanding. Controversial American political figure Henry Kissinger said, “a society becomes great not by the victories of its factions over each other but by its reconciliations.”

There is great potential to learn from each other. This will take time. Young leaders often strive for radical, quick changes rather than smaller, incremental changes.

A mentor of mine once said that service is a sustained effort over a long period of time rather than a short burst of effort or relief work. In Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius it says “perseverance is more effective than brute strength, and that there are many difficulties that cannot be overcome if you try to do everything at once, but which will yield if you master them little by little.”

True change happens over time, with consistency. Emerging leaders need to focus on small actions and efforts that consistently improve their critical thinking faculties.

Another mentor of mine once pointed out the importance of asking a simple question, “What is the problem?” Too often we pursue action without questioning our conception of a problem. Emerging leaders should consistently apply their minds to asking, “What is the problem? How has it changed? How can it be addressed?”

My mentors all excel in different areas and struggle in others. Emerging leaders need to emulate the best of each mentor, strive for balance. My mentors differ but all agree on one thing. It is important to learn how to learn and subscribe to lifelong learning.

My father reads regularly and always tries to learn from those he converses with. A mentor of mine, in addition to multiple qualifications from multiple universities seeks out short courses and projects that will teach him more about himself and the way he works.

A second mentor has written three books and hopes to write many more. The process of writing a book requires research, travel, reading, questioning.

I have tried to implement aspects of each mentor in my own life. I am always reading books. Usually history, politics or biographies. I try to speak to people from diverse backgrounds and make it a point to try to learn from everyone I interact with.

I have two qualifications from two different universities and will work to include a third and fourth in the next few years. I engage in projects through my role as President at the Rotaract Club of Stellenbosch, as an Ambassador of the Africademics University Programme.

Finally I have not written any books, but I explore my passion for Storytelling in my blog Power of Though Blog in which I engage with emerging and established leaders on how we can tell a new story about the world.

This article is republished from the Power of Thought blog: