This week’s letter was meant to be about war. I have sensed that the metronomic coverage of war with its detached geopolitical, strategic, and bland technological-capability-of-the-weapons aloofness was obscuring my vision of the truth.
As we approach South Africa’s Human Rights Day, I wanted to remind myself that war means violence, that violence is the denial of freedom, that excellence comes from freedom in all its forms.
That letter escaped me today. It had threads pulled from Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Damon Galgut’s The Promise and David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black. There are my grandfather’s memories of Normandy, but I haven’t been able to weave them together.
I needed to find something more hopeful. I needed a different view of human rights, an antidote to the darkness. It has ended up being about a celebration of the possibility that is within all of us.
In recent weeks, the New York Times’ Exploring South Africa’s Black Wine Scene and The Guardian’s Wines that taste good – and do good celebrated the Cape’s black winemakers (I was pleased that Arlene Mains’ Seriously Old Dirt was highlighted, it is one of my favourite winter wines).
These acknowledgments were the kinds of counter-depressants I needed. They reminded me of what can happen in freedom when we can do what we’re made for.
On Monday, I was invited to work with a team of executives wanting to deepen their efforts at collaboration, to share what they do best with the people around them.
As I prepared, I was conscious of how easily the language of strategy can bury excellence, that passion and possibility can be snuffed out by polysyllabic words that sound profound but have no soul.
I kept returning to this passage from Good to Great, “‘What work makes you feel compelled to try to create greatness?’ If you have to ask the question, ‘Why should we try to make it great? Isn’t success enough?’ then you’re probably in the wrong line of work”.
At the heart of powerful strategy lies a simple test. Does it inspire you?
If you don’t really care about it, well…
If your strategy’s language doesn’t evoke emotion, doesn’t hold the potential for pride, for growth, for transformation, for greatness, then pause.
You already know the experience of being thrilled…when you’ve always wanted to do something but it was a bit scary and then you found the courage to try and you managed and it was amazing and you wanted to do it again, because it was a thrill and you knew you could do better, so you did it again and it was better and so it was even a little more amazing and on and on you went…
That’s greatness. That’s the heartbeat of strategy.
Find that place for your organisation. Do what thrills you. It has power. Give yourself the best chance to build a great business.
Towards the end of January, the New York Times asked, “It Took Nearly 30 Years. Is America Ready for Ben Okri Now?”
Okri muses about his increasing US prominence, “These things are a complete mystery. Books have their own lives. Maybe nations go through a time when they just can’t hear certain kinds of voices.”
Although if he had tried to twist himself into what he thought the American market wanted, he wouldn’t be the voice that they are now ready to hear.
By doing what he does best he has ensured that he is heard at a time when the world needs a “vocal town crier against injustice”.
Moreover, his example has catalyzed others. Okezie Nwoka, the author of ‘God of Mercy’, comments “Ben has shown me that African writing does not have to follow a single style — that it can be as fluid and diverse as African people.”
Okri being Okri inspired Nwoka. Nwoka being Nwoka inspired…
By you doing what you do best, you inspire others to do what they do best, triggering ripples that travel through the world in ways that you can never predict, constantly increasing freedom.
And finally for today, on Thursday evening, historian and textile designer, Ruqayah Bryce, hosted What Are You?
The people in the room spanned five decades. Well actually seven, when one considers the toddlers, as one must.
The elders in the room spoke of the apartheid’s violence, of the destruction of neighbourhoods, of social bonds severed, of possibilities oppressed, and of the strength that came from identities of community, blackness, activist, Pan-Africanist. The younger generation added trans, queer, and post-colonial.
All spoke about being shaped both by oppression and the determination to be free; the finding and creation of spaces that helped them be the best they could be.
There was pain in the room and there was possibility.
There was a determination to find descriptions and knowledge of oneself that would in turn create new space to act in new ways. We all carry stories with us, very often they’re not our stories but are ones that others have of us. Knowing who we are, naming ourselves, is a source of power.
Nwoka and the respectful listening in the room reminded me Takuskanskan, a deity of the Great Sioux Nation, who I ‘met’ in Ruth Robertson’s essay, Quantum Enlightenment.
She says Takuskanskan is “the Great Mystery, but also the Universe, and everything within it. It inside you and me. It is the Source of all life…”.
Perhaps therein lies a soulful truth, by going inside ourselves to find our excellence we create the possibility of connection with the excellence inside others and maybe, just maybe, with the eternal mystery of the universe.
All the best
PS: If you have children in your life, you’ll probably love Ben Okri’s environmental fairy tale Every Leaf a Hallelujah.