By Rachel Nyaradzo Adams
Being a leadership development practitioner has allowed me to engage numerous profiles of current and aspiring African leaders — some who are already on their leadership path, and some who are still grappling with the potential and possibilities of their leadership journey. Being an advocate of the “leading through your strengths” practice, one of the questions I like to ask in trainings, interviews or coaching conversations is “what are the strengths that will allow you to achieve your highest dreams?” This tends to throw people off. Most conversations on leadership are driven by a focus on goal setting. But beyond the goal setting is something more powerful yet seemingly intangible. A rising senior I interviewed a few months ago articulated it well when she said to me “I have a powerful ability to imagine!”
Just a few weeks before this interview, I had been speaking with a mentor about the state of our continent, Africa. We lamented the fact that our reality as a people, as a political-economy, had been largely crafted by external forces or by poor internal leadership practices, and many times without our input or even our consent. We quickly started to name some of the things that we resented and that we thought did not work for what we believed the African project should be. In the exercise of naming these things we both were reminded that those who had created our reality had dared to imagine deeply the future they wanted to experience. They had then spent days, months, years, decades creating that future as they imagined it. Whether it was with the use of coercion or subtle cunning; whether it was with good or bad intention; whether it was a selfish or altruistic outlook: the truth we confronted was that what we were grappling with were the products of a powerful imagination. Someone, somewhere had been so driven by what they believed, and had with every resource they had available to them (and probably with some help and luck along the way), created a reality that spoke to THEIR values, THEIR ambition, THEIR truth. My mentor and I agreed that when others imagine and create, especially when they create a reality that does not benefit us as a continent, it is unrealistic to be upset about the outcome or the consequences when we ourselves have not put any substantial effort into imagining differently. And there lies our challenge and our opportunity.
Anyone can set goals. But these goals can easily be based on someone else’s definition of where you think you should end up. Goals can easily be influenced by cultural or social pressures to act in a certain way or achieve based on the status quo. As a result of this kind of socialisation, I have coached dozens of university students (as an example) who are setting goals towards becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers or accountants when they should be staying true to their passion in the social sciences or in the humanities. But because our entire socio-economic system (whether you are talking about status, the job market, limited scholarship funds that are biased towards maths and science) pushes them towards a narrow pool of choices, they neglect the purpose for which they came to the earth in the first place and go after careers they can only be mediocre at. The result: a loss of the diverse human talent that our continent desperately needs.
Because of this unfortunate outcome of our times, I have stopped asking coaches and trainees about their goals. I ask them “what is your biggest and wildest imagination?” “What future do you imagine for yourself and your community?” “What fascinated you as a child, before the world forced you into a box, and how are those fascinations reflective of your deepest and truest purpose on this earth?” “What personal strengths do you have at your disposal to turn those fascinations into reality?” With these questions on the table the rules of the game change! I am no longer asking the mentee to take the easy road of telling me the five things they want to achieve by 2019. I am asking them to search within themselves for their deepest convictions and from that well of wisdom, to start defining their true intention in the world! I strongly believe that it is within this sacred conversation that dreams are reignited and the hope for our continent is redefined! The discipline of holding on to an imagination and using every waking and breathing moment to make it a reality in the physical world, is much greater than the discipline it takes to state goals on a piece of paper.
I have observed in many of my mentees an unsettling amount of energy that is spent articulating and complaining about “a system” that holds them back from greatness. Whether it is a disadvantaged background; an oppressive social structure; a corporate culture that is biased towards a certain demographic; a family situation; a personal ailment; you name it I’ve heard it. (I myself have often struggled with a paralysing sense of anger and shame when it comes to the state of our continent.) What’s most interesting though is what happens each time I ask the question “OK, we know what you don’t want. Let’s define what you do want and talk about how we can create that”. A sudden fuzziness emerges. Inarticulate gibberish about having tried several times to move in a different direction and then “the system” stood in the way … once again. Each time this happens I am reminded of the fact that our unfortunate history has made us particularly articulate when it comes to protest but often very unclear when it comes to formulating the strategy of how we will get to a future we prefer. In my mind it is exactly why the post-colonial generation of leaders has done so poorly — they understand protest, they do not understand how to create beyond the protest. And it’s disheartening to note that the generations after them are not necessarily doing a better job either.
But there is always hope. Having encountered personally or through institutions some of the amazing young leaders of our time, I am in rare moments reminded of the power of those who dare to imagine. William Kamkwamba imagined within the impoverished circumstances of his rural village in Malawi and created his first windmill with scrap material from a rubbish dump. Siyabulela Xuza imagined within the confines of his mother’s kitchen in a township in Mthatha, South Africa, and created rocket fuel with the limited resources he could afford. Fourteen-year-old Laetitia Mukungu imagined and fundamentally understood that “being poor did not mean that she had a poor mind” and started a rabbit enterprise to empower and employ rural women in Kenya. These are young African leaders who have achieved their highest academic accolades while striving within some of the direst of situations.
Systems are everywhere but what these stories prove to us is that imagination and the ability to believe in a different future for yourself can render a system inconsequential to where you end up. When I have given these examples, I have sometimes been met with yet more protest. But why do Africans always have to start from a hard place? Why do we have to be exceptional to make it in the world. Why does everything have to be a struggle? And I say “because that is our reality!” “It is what it is and it will be a struggle until it is not!” And if a generation of Africans does not rise up and say we will stop spending our energy and resources on complaining and on blind endurance and actually do the work required — then we will never be able to create the realities we prefer?
So what is the reality you prefer? Is it a truly regionally integrated continent? Better still is it a unified continent? Is it a more Africanised and less alienating curriculum that speaks to the reality of our own children? Is it innovations that will bring light, power and water to more people? Is it a continent where public health is accessible to all? Is it becoming a philosopher/public intellectual/thinker who can inspire Africans into a new pan-African identity? Is it being that filmmaker who will show us the images that truly speak to and affirm the power within us as a people? Is it being that leader who will reject the politics of the belly and put to action policies that actually acknowledge and serve our people? Can you imagine that? And once imagined can you articulate this imagined reality clearly? Can you convert it into a plan? Can you impress it upon other people to support you with the resources you need to create this reality?
My work and my experience have led me to discard goal-making exercises. Here’s what I challenge you to do as you move forward in your leadership this year. Start to speak unapologetically about the reality that you want, that you prefer. Come out the closet with your real hopes and aspirations. Challenge the status quo, not with protests and stories of victimhood, but with ideas, alternatives and clear visions of a preferred reality. Act on your aspirations and do not stop until you start to see that glimpse of the future you dreamt of. You have permission to dream as far as your imagination will take you. Most importantly, understand and invest in the strengths that you naturally have because your potential towards genius lies within those strengths.
One of the things that I regret about my so called “globalised” experience, particularly when I was reading for my masters at Oxford University, was my inability to articulate, with confidence, the imagination that I had for my own continent. I allowed myself to be intimidated by a Western perspective of how Africans should experience their world. I tended to be in conflict with myself when opinions expressed differed fundamentally from mine. Worse still my education had not given me the tools to challenge those opinions. And when the sense of inferiority overtook me, as it did a number of African Oxford alums I have interacted with, I protested! I forgot the power and permission I had to express my truth and I volunteered myself to be a victim of the system. We should stop allowing this to happen to us. We carry in us the authenticity of our own experiences. And that is powerful as a start. We need to sharpen the muscle of our deepest imaginations and speak life to the reality that we want for our continent.
I say go ye and imagine differently. Give yourself unencumbered permission to create the Africa that will improve the quality of life of the men, women and children that surround you. It’s no secret: The people who are most likely to change the course of our worldly experience are those who can imagine AND create the reality they prefer. And that for me is where leadership begins and ends.
Rachel Nyaradzo Adams is a leadership practitioner who is fiercely committed to education and leadership development on the African continent. She is first African and then Zimbabwean.