One of the biggest challenges that I faced when I started to embrace the role of leader, was the weight of responsibility and my fear of failure. When I started to believe that I had an important vision that resonated with many others and I began to articulate and work towards creating that vision, I was confronted with the millions of ways I had come to doubt myself. I had this idea of leadership as a place of such high responsibility, and felt that failure and vulnerability were not expected for those in positions of power. Yet despite this idea, what it can often feel like for those in leadership, is that this position actually forces us to confront our own sense of powerlessness. I felt this pull towards hiding that part of my experience. It seems like that’s what leaders are meant to do. Leaders inspire confidence by being confident, or at least appearing confident. Yet when I deeply examined this, I began to feel that actually, in the times when I felt the need to pretend to be confident and capable, I was losing out on the opportunity to learn, grow and to model leadership for the soft hearted dreamers like myself.
I am sure you will remember, at least through the photos we took, our trip to Graskop Gorge: a key tourist site for anyone visiting Mpumalanga, a province in the North east of South Africa, about a 5 hour drive from Johannesburg. I remember my eyes wide and my jaw hanging down as we drove through the most epic mountainous land. Not far from Graskop is a place aptly named Gods Window. This area truly makes one appreciate the incomprehensible beauty and magnitude of the Earth. The Gorge itself is a 50 metre drop down to a lush forest which you can get to via steps, a lift or, as our fear-facing friend did, via a bungee jump.
There we met Mandisa Magwaxaza, an extraordinary entrepreneur. Watching her face her fear and take on the bungee jump was exhilarating. I could feel that it was a physical act that had so much emotional processing behind it. Mandisa, like myself and others I met on our journey, had her world turned about during the pandemic. She had been working for years in the tourist industry that completely collapsed in many places around the world. After exploring a number of entrepreneurial pursuits including journalism, voice acting, language classes and product sales, she now mainly applies her talent, incisive intelligence and knowledge to her own tourism marketing agency. As tourism resurges in South Africa, she has dedicated herself to challenging the colonialism still dominating the tourism industry, and to telling the stories of female leaders and black-centred stories about the culture and history of South Africa.
Meeting Mandisa gave me permission to be an explorer, and inspired me to take my own leaps of faith. I considered the air around her as she jumped into that epic and dense forestry. I wondered in Graskop, where the Earth felt so immense, what space we have as leaders to explore and to take risks. I call that space our Place of Grace. It is the area that we each can expand and define for ourselves. It is the area that allows us to spread our wings. The area in which we can come into contact with our vulnerabilities, and with the edges of ourselves to face the things that terrify us.
I hold onto this concept of Leadership within Grace as a place of comfort. It is me giving myself the permission to be an imperfect leader. It is me giving myself the permission to still have space to grow. It is me allowing myself to admit that I don’t have it all figured out. Even as your parent, I allow myself that Grace, and what it gives me is a trust in myself that comes from an authentic place. I do not try to pretend to always have the answers to your epic questions about life, death and birth. I do not pretend to always have unending patience or to even get things right. I apologise often. Not from a self-deprecating place but from the place of owning and loving my imperfections.
I dream of a time when leadership failures are held as lovingly as leadership triumphs. I dream of a world in which you can experiment, and play as a key part of your working life. I dream of a world in which leaders who make mistakes are cared for and supported through the learning curve rather than shamed and attacked. In this dream, leaders are still accountable for their actions and they still take responsibility. Yet for most of us imperfect leaders, it would be so much more possible to take responsibility if we felt there was the space for imperfection, and not the messages we receive that we must always hide our learning edges and appear competent at all times.
On the eastern edge of Johannesburg’s Central Banking District, is a suburb called Troyeville: a place that has been home to revolutionaries, artists and musicians. On the top of a large hill, in a cottage surrounded by quartz rocky cliffs and large Jacaranda trees – an oasis from the buzz of the city – sits Che-vanni Davids, founder of the Reimagined Learning Centre. Talking to myself, my partner Carline and a dozen of other parents, he grants us permission to “fuck it up!” (in a rewrite of Rupaul’s Drag Race’s catchphase; ‘don’t fuck it up’), urgeing us all to allow ourselves to mess up. After years of coordinating, and facilitating the self-directed education centre in this magical oasis full of plants, food growing, art work and adventure, we met Che-Vanni at an important transition in his life. Che-Vanni was journeying through his first 6 months of fatherhood, and responding to his own call to travel to an ecovillage on the Western Coast to facilitate the creation of another centre for self-directed learning. He had brought many parents together to invite us all to take greater leadership in the running and facilitation of the centre in Troyeville. We wanted to keep the centre going because we all had such respect for the magical space that it was, but the responsibility to keep that magic alive felt enormous.
So I was warmed by his invitation for us to challenge any desires we had for perfection, or to take on leadership with caution and carefulness. He wanted us to play and experiment, to enter into the messy world of leadership. The invitation to ‘fuck it up’ diffused any tension, naming the very thing we were all probably fearful of. That invitation, to not just swallow down those fears but to embrace them, is a provocation that I wish was part of the process of everyone’s movement into leadership. I hope that as you grow into the areas that pull your attention and ignite your passion, that you are also able to give yourself the Grace to mess it up. The Grace to hold your mistakes and painful moments as precious teachers on the road to growing deeper into an authentic and resilient leader.