Wow, it’s the last Sunday of September. What a year! This painting by Alexandra Karakashian has captured the year for me.
Today’s subject was inspired by an elder of mine who would ask me, “What have you done recently with your position of privilege?”
It always made me pause.
Today’s letter hopefully provides you with a moment of pause and inspiration in which you can reflect on the ways that you use your position of privilege.
You may feel that you do not occupy a position of privilege, and so I thought to paraphrase Shaykh Muhammad bin Yahya al-Ninowy who, in a lecture in Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap, said words to effect of, “You think you have nothing to give? Can you smile? Then, give a smile.”
Thank you to Ridwaan Rasool for introducing me to the Shaykh’s teaching.
Today, I have chosen to break with my usual reflections on learnings gleaned from others’ experiences and instead draw on my own journey.
The strange thing about being in business, or in organisation, is that a narrative takes hold of how things ‘ought’ to be done.
We all have heard (and sometimes used) the phrase, ‘the business needs’ as a justification for a decision.
The following two anecdotes are from moments in my career when I was blessed to encounter people who taught me other possibilities.
In the early 2000s, I was asked by the founder of YFM, Dirk Hartford, to join their team. YFM was an unbelievable place in those days. Part radio station, part cultural revolution, it had rocketed to more than 500,000 listeners after a mere 6 weeks on air.
YFM was the jet-fuel for kwaito, and the South African expressions of house music and hip-hop, whilst simultaneously igniting an urban fashion revolution led by brands like Stoned Cherrie, Loxion Kultcha and MaGents.
This catalysing effect had its roots in the generosity championed by Dirk and his leadership team.
None of the independent record labels, concert promoters, fashion designers or artists who were shaping the emergence of South African urban culture could ever have afforded radio advertising in those days. Yet, the YFM team was unfailing generous. They put them on-air. They promoted the events, the new ranges, the album launches. There was never a question of payment, it was about a commitment to enabling others. They put dozens of businesses on-air with no expectation that they would ever pay. Dirk always insisted, “we’re building the culture.”
Of course, those that could pay did, and we built a great sales team that used our credibility in urban culture to secure landmark deals with blue-chip brands. In so doing, we became the most commercially successful of all the radio stations that had started in that time.
It’s a lesson I’ve taken into my coaching practice. From time to time I encounter people who want to work with me, but they can’t always afford me. If we connect, and they’re committed to building a more humane world and are seeking to live a meaningful life, within the limits of my time, my standard response is, “pay me what you can.”
I am told it’s commercially naïve, but I remember YFM and what we achieved.
In 2007, I joined Primedia Broadcasting. At that point, under the leadership of Terry Volkwyn (who, in 2015, City Press identified as “the woman who helped change radio in South Africa”), it was South Africa’s most commercially successful radio group and home to some of the country’s most iconic personalities.
Just 12 months later we headed in the global financial crisis. We confronted the possibility of retrenchments.
I remember sitting in the office of my then-boss, Colleen Louw. Her first move was to identify the most economically vulnerable people in the business. Her words were, ‘these people, we don’t touch.’
As it turned out we didn’t have to retrench, we weathered that storm. But it was a leadership lesson that stayed with me. Protect the vulnerable. It’s the right thing to do, and in doing that, you build trust. Do the opposite, follow the business playbook and ironically you destroy the very essence of what you need to build sustained success.
In both organisations, from both leadership teams, I learnt that you have choices. You can make choices with heart and be successful. You need not follow the beaten track, the path of least resistance. Indeed, taking another path challenges you to be far more innovative than you would otherwise be.
Last week, author and podcaster, Tim Ferriss used his podcast to speak about his Healing Journey After Childhood Abuse. He does so in conversation with Debbie Millman, who amongst her many accolades hosts Design Matters, an amazing podcast on creative culture.
Ferris starts the podcast saying, “… this is the most important podcast episode I’ve ever published…I believe this episode is relevant to almost everyone. If you haven’t experienced trauma, you will meet people who have, and you may already know people who have (including friends or family members who simply haven’t told you).”
Their conversation is the epitome of using a position of privilege for good. They share their personal pain and healing with the intent of providing hope for others.
It was Millman’s sharing of her journey, that in turn gave Ferris the courage to seek healing and ultimately to share his story.
Millman reflects on that interview saying, “…you found that little bio of mine on Joyful Heart’s website and asked me why working with the Joyful Heart Foundation made my life make sense. And in that moment, I had to decide: do I disclose to Tim’s millions and millions of people that are the listening audience, or do I lie? And I just took one step into the future and told the truth. And that changed my life.”
The conversation runs for over two hours. There’s no way to do it justice here, so I will close this section with a comment from Millman that I have been reflecting on.
“I have problems with the word victim. I understand where it comes from and why it’s used, but I don’t feel like a victim and I’ve never felt like a victim, nor do I feel like a survivor, it’s a process of living. And I do think there needs to be some new language around these experiences that really are more accurate as to what we are experiencing, because it makes us as other and we’re not other, there is no other.”
It’s a process of living…
Ferriss and Millman reflect how they’ve been able to turn their ‘trauma into medicine’, working with their experience to heal themselves, and to bring healing to the world.
Ferris says, “helping other people heal has helped me heal and working on your own healing, in turn, helps you to help others to heal. So, it is a virtuous cycle. It has been at least for me, and I really want to underscore for people listening that, right now in my life I have more light, and joy, and compassion, and feeling of safety and security and optimism than I’ve ever had in my life.”
They put together an incredible list of resources, which you can find here.
Undoubtedly, these are two people using their position of privilege to bring healing despite their pain.
I hope that you have a week filled with inspiration about how you might use your position of privilege.
I would love to hear your stories of where you’ve witnessed people using their positions of privilege for good. I’d also love to hear your own stories, so please do email me.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and it got you thinking, you can subscribe here.
PS: I hope you like this week’s design. It was inspired by good friend, Siphiwe Mpye, debonair wordsmith extraordinaire and publisher of noted.man. Siphiwe graciously agreed I could emulate the design of his – far slicker – newsletter.
(This letter was first published on 27 September 2020)