Leadership in times of adversity and anxiety by Christo Nel

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Jul
29

Leadership in times of adversity and anxiety – by Christo Nel

During times of adversity and anxiety the leadership response we have become accustomed to is for all sides to resort to the violence of words and deeds. This given perpetuates to more violence. Brutality becomes the norm on all sides.The Dutch response to the flight MH17 disaster has been radically different and authentic.

 

The world feels very brittle: the endless abuse of human rights from all sides in Gaza; Russia and Ukraine threatening stability; Syria collapsed; Iraq in turmoil; rape, kidnapping and pillage in Nigeria; and the tragedy of almost 300 innocent people blown out of the sky.
People in leadership roles are responding very differently. The vast majority are resorting to endless blaming and demonising of one another. Opposing forces harden their stances and clothe their egos in steel as they deepen the polarisation and conflict. Some simply appear confused and passive hoping no one will notice their absence and silence.

During times of adversity and anxiety the response we have become accustomed to is for all sides to resort to the violence of words and deeds. This given perpetuates to more violence. Brutality becomes the norm on all sides. It displays the dark side of humanity’s reactions to adversity and anxiety. Perhaps below the anger and violence is a deep sense of fear, insecurity and our own mortality. We cannot face our fear and so we lash out against one another.

The Dutch response to the flight MH17 disaster has been radically different and authentic. In times of crisis it is human to feel anxious. People, specifically those in prominent leadership roles, mostly try to suppress and deny it. They fear that if they show their anxiety they will be judged as weak and not coping.

This past week individual leaders and the Dutch nation embraced their pain and trauma. Instead of holding back and feigning false control, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans stood on the world stage and spoke passionately about his own feelings and the terrible pain of the nation. He showed his vulnerability in front of the world. What a great difference to the tough “cowboys don’t cry” bluster and branding other human beings as evil. In his vulnerability and response to angst he symbolizes the vulnerability of the nation – and also of the world. It is the hallmark of all great leaders and reminds us of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu who has for decades been the moral compass for South Africa and  the world.

The outpouring of grief and recognition of personal loss and national trauma turned the often individualistic and low profile Dutch nation into a community bonded together. Tens of thousands lined the streets in a show of communality that ensured that those who have suffered the most severe loss know they are not alone. Rudyard Kipling said “The strength of the wolf is in the pack; and the strength of the pack is in the wolf.” Never is this more true than in times of adversity and anxiety.

More importantly the Dutch nation is taking international leadership by holding up the moral compass and enabling us to stare into the mirror of human values that are sacrosanct and may not be sacrificed on the altar of hatred and violence. This latest brutal wounding of our human psyche makes it all too easy to slide into the comfort of revenge and combat. The Dutch response this week is helping us instead to draw on our common humanity as a source of inspiration and strength.

When Prime Minister Mark Rutte was asked what was needed now, he spoke with the calm of the true warrior and not the reactionary character of the militant, the mercenary or the opportunistic politician. His unambiguous call to bring the bodies home to their families; not to speculate but to uncover the facts; and based on facts to bring the perpetrators to book was delivered with simplicity and clarity of thought and intent. Especially in this time of understandable potential for rage he refused to be drawn into making accusations based on assumptions and prejudice.

In this time of crisis individual Dutch leaders and the nation as a whole are reminding us that when faced with adversity and anxiety we still have the power to choose. In choosing to first acknowledge and show vulnerability we are witnessing true courage and strength. It is, drawing people together so that we may feel less isolated, less fearful, less alone.

Today the Dutch are showing the world a radically different, more human-centered and sustainable way of responding to crisis, anger and pain. It symbolizes what is perhaps needed most in the world right now. In times of adversity leaders everywhere would serve everyone better if they too display the power of vulnerability, and have the courage to embrace our individual and collective anxiety. It is only then that we may yet prove capable of bridging the chasms that so often divide us.

About the Author:
Christo Nel is the Program Director of International MBA and Executive MBA at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands. Christo Nel is a previous head of the Centre for Leadership Studies at the Stellenbosch University School of Business (USB), where he specialized in leadership development and high performance organization cultures and practices. His wealth of experience of the challenges facing leadership of medium to large and corporate organizations makes him one of South Africa’s most respected consultants and executive coaches.

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