The need for courage and optimism..

Speech to Brightest young minds – May 2013 –

This is personal challenge to you, and to me to step up to being leader in our society and in business.   The challenge is to work to a sense of purpose and not just to a drive for profits.  Think of the greatest leaders we know either in business, politics or society – be they Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or in business Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg – all are driven by purpose .  All the business leaders know the value of money and how to use it to drive their businesses even if some if them can’t read a balance sheet.

First I’d like to explore briefly why purpose drives profit and not the other way round and secondly why I believe this matters  to us in our time  as we build a positive, confident, transnational and skilled Africa.  We reinvest money to build the capability to support our purpose, not the other way round.  So we need to be purpose driven to create our business and profit focused to sustain and grow them, but for me, purpose comes first and that purpose needs to be managed as actively or more so that we mange the profit.  it’s not either/or, it’s and/both.  They live together, supporting each other and building better value through better businesses.  But it’s not just customer value we seek to create, it’s value for our people. the community that makes up our businesses/

 

Let’s think for a moment about what drives us.  Dan Pink who write a great book called Drive. He shows how money matters most when we are short of it, but that how when the issue of money is taken off the table, it’s other things that drive us.  He says that we are driven by a need for purpose, autonomy and for progress.  In fact he makes a great case for saying that, once we are paid enough, further financial incentives can actually reduce  higher order thinking and performance.

Let’s return to Africa again and think about our future and purpose.

We have major challenges, which are outlined in the National development plan.  They are :

  1. Creating jobs and livelihood
  2. Expanding infrastructure
  3. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy
  4. Transforming urban and rural spaces
  5. Improving education and training
  6. Providing quality health care
  7. Building a capable state
  8. Fighting corruption and enhancing accountability
  9. Transforming society and uniting the nation

And what great challenges they are.  For this is an extraordinary time in South Africa – a time of great danger but of enormous possibility too.  We mine South Africa, and perhaps Africa generally, for our mineral resources but our greatest resources are our people. People like you.  I believe we need to value and develop those resources with a passionate intensity, providing motivation, encouragement, quality education and good example.   And we need the courage to be optimistic.  Why optimism?

Firstly, for decades much of the world has been Afro-pessimistic, it became the dominant logic in working with Africa.  While we still have huge and often scary-looking challenges, the time for Afro-pessimism is over we needed to scrub the traces of it from our minds and attitudes.  The covers of Time Magazine and of the Economist within the last year have sung a different song; is “Africa Rising – It’s the world’s next dominant economic powerhouse”.  Our job is to believe in this, and believe that we have the intelligence, capacity to learn, skills, application and imagination to make that real, and to provide opportunity for all.

Soon, about a quarter of the world’s young people will be African and unless we do something about it they will mostly be unemployed.  We need to work to make sure it is Africa Rising and not Africa Uprising.  You have the fortunate position to have the skills, relative youth and intelligence to make a difference  – and a context in which you can make it happen.   There has never been a better time to be an African hero.  It’s about, as Martin Luther King said, the content of our characters, not the colour of our skins.

Why is it then Africa’s time?  Over the last ten years, 6 of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies have been Africa.  5 African countries have been growing faster than China, 21 growing faster than India and all except 2 of them have been growing faster that both Europe and the United States.   In the next few decades – and how few decades depend on us – hundreds of millions of African people will be lifted out of poverty, as in previous decades Asian people were in Asia.   Business is now the driving force in Africa.   For the first time ever, in 2006, investment in Africa outpaced Foreign Aid and it now doubles it. Africa’s GDP is about $1,6 trillion today but should double in 12 years.  There are more democratic governments, fewer rogue leaders, fewer conflicts. At the same time our education systems continue to be poor, with notable exceptions like Ghana, which has achieved 100% primary school enrollment and increasing high school enrollment and improvements in quality. It is because we live in a world where such great promise and great problems coexist that we need to be optimistic, and see through the challenges to the possibilities beyond them.  Often the newly emerging economies such as China and India seem better able to understand this dilemma and engage with it.  Africa is becoming increasingly important to the rest of the world, for its resources, agricultural land and for its rapidly growing markets.  In the future I predict it will become just as important for its talent. The world needs Africa and we now are having the opportunity to engage with the world from a position of strength, not of need.

We lead today in Africa within an international context.  It’s  a context where you are needed.  At Henley Africa  we support you and our job is to graduate people with the skills to build the organisations to build Africa. Our society needs people who are confident and capable – confident to innovate and try new ideas and capable of managing well, using their intelligence and their imagination, using resources effectively and creating new forms of value, new businesses, money for families to develop, to have good health and to educate their children.

Lets talk a little bit about what confidence is and is not, and how a sense of purpose and confidence make such a difference to our lives.

You have made extraordinary progress in South Africa in the last 17 years.  In many ways South Africa was an abused society and the deepest effect of abuse is on self-confidence and self-esteem.  I believe for a long time we have confused education with intelligence in South Africa, and now we are truly coming out of that.  South Africa has many, many highly intelligent but undereducated people – people who in the past were systematically deprived of education and now who fight for their sons and daughters to have the opportunities they did not.  This is an extraordinary time in South Africa – a time of great danger but enormous possibility too.  We mine South Africa for our mineral resources but our greatest resources are our people. People like you.  I believe we need to value and develop those resources with a passionate intensity, providing motivation, encouragement, quality education and good example.

Above all we need to build a proper confidence. South African people have all the talents, intelligence and capability of the Americans, Asians and Europeans and it’s about time we all really started to believe that.  For belief is more than rhetoric. Our best education institutions know this and are increasingly working together to build a positive South Africa.   Our universities and places of learning are not rules unto themselves; they serve the societies in which they are situated by providing the skills and foundations to build better quality of life.   In the end they serve both knowledge and society.

Corruption is not based in self-confidence but in self-weakness, in a lack of personal significance as.  The weakness that feeds the need to take short cuts and take from others, the weakness that says I can’t, not that I can.  Our society needs people who are confident and capable – confident to innovate and try new ideas and capable of managing well, using their intelligence and their imagination, using resources effectively and creating new forms of value, new businesses, money for families to develop, to have good health and to educate their children.

So how can you develop true confidence?  The first stage in true confidence is to know, really know, that you can learn your way through most things.   When you know that you don’t fear being ignorant ever again.  You don’t need to defend your ignorance or be scared of the new.   For it doesn’t matter how smart a person is, they aren’t smart in everything. They have to learn from the beginning again.  And you and I will never be smart in everything either, so let’s learn to love learning.  If we know that we can learn, we will relish the challenge of the new and know that we can grow and succeed.

The second stage in true confidence is to embrace optimism, even in the face of great difficulty.  When there is no hope, then hope is the only answer.  Research has shown that we are wired to think that cynical and negative people are smarter than optimists but it simply isn’t true. In fact they can suck all imagination and creativity from a situation. Cynics are just passionate people who have been disappointed once too often.  If we let ourselves become clever cynics like this, it will make us a nation of problem solvers rather than a nation of possibility seekers. And it’s purpose and possibility we need.

But not just any sort of optimism will do – it’s the type of optimism that matters.  Victor Frankl, a WWII concentration camp survivor and famous psychologist, noted that neither the pessimists nor the blind optimists survived long.  The ones who made it through were the ’tragic optimists’ – the ones who said ‘yes’ to life in spite of knowing the difficult reality of everything.  Cultivating this attitude turns pain into achievement, turns guilt to the possibility of improvement and turns the knowledge that our lives are not endless into taking responsible action.  There is no room for cynicism in leadership or in education. Optimism is a powerful force and we need to nourish and cultivate it.

The third stage of true confidence is to develop a sense of purpose and horizons.  Some unlucky people walk around staring just ahead of their feet – it’s hard to get a sense of possibility that way and to see much of anything in front of you. Others, perhaps most of us, see straight ahead and slightly down, and go through life managing well enough.  True leaders look up and ahead, lift their eyes and see the possibilities – hold a vision.    When we manage purpose is when we achieve great things.  Our greatest leaders – in politics, government and business – are those who lift us up to a purpose; and you can be one of those leaders.  If you maintain a sense of purpose before a sense of profit you have the chance of building truly great organisations that will make a difference to people and make money too.

The two final stages in true confidence are firstly courage and secondly to have fun.  Strangely they go hand-in-hand.  We can never get anywhere without the determination and raw courage to act.  We also need the discipline to continue acting until we develop skills.  If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly to begin with. None of us start perfect. It’s no good going to gym once, that’s how the gyms make all their money.  You have to stick with it.

If you are brave you will get hurt sometimes.  Courage is acting when we fear, not when we are fearless.   We generally find that life shrinks or expands in proportion to our courage.

The final point in true confidence, fun, is critical.  For fun and play and experimentation and crazy exploration are where we express our most subversive and radical capabilities – our capabilities of imagination and creativity.  Here you will face challenge and ridicule and opposition, for it is here that you become agents of change…. and the establishment doesn’t like change, but it needs it to stay fresh and relevant.  Those older ones here – remember when we were young and anti-establishment – we are the establishment today so let’s keep it vibrant, growing with a sense of purpose and listening to the voices of change.

We are all trying to achieve.  Let’s not think that that achievement is about profits alone and make money now, important though that is.  We are really going to make a nation, and a world worth living in, and the major engine for that is in business and in the ways we work.  and we all need you to succeed and we are all behind you.

Thanks so much for listening. South Africa is truly blessed to have such talent as you in the world of work.  For all our sakes, be brave, be confident and make a difference.  Nothing reduces the odds against you like ignoring them.  Good luck, you can do it.

You are leaving now with a great achievement.  Good luck with your careers, your families and in making a difference.  We all need you to succeed and we are all behind you.  Africa is truly fortunate to have such talent as you.

Remember that nothing reduces the odds against you like ignoring them.  Thank you.

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