I’m back in Johannesburg after three days on the veld west of the city running an Art of Participatory Leadership workshop with my friend from REOS Social Innovation. The weather here has been crazy – constant rain showers and thunderstorms for the whole time we were away, and there is flooding locally here. Driving back into the city we went fender deep through many intersections; major thoroughfares were rendered into fords, water coloured with deep red soil flowing everywhere.
Usually its easy for me to write about these kinds of workshops, but I have to say that South Africa is an overwhelming context. It does not at all lend itself to a simple set of observations. In many ways it is the quintessential study in contrasts: squatter camps next to luxury suburban malls, torrential rains in Joburg and 30 minutes away, lovely summer weather on the safari. Somehow these things have much in common. You are always taken by surprise by the contrast while at the same time struck by how normal it all seems.
REOS Partners is working with two major teams right now, both of which are present at this training. One is Kago Ya Bana (Building together for our children), which is a program that works in the municipality of Midvaal, aimed at ensuring that every child is cared for. The other is a team of people who work with distance learning at the University of South Africa (UNISA). On the face of it, these tow teams have nothing really in common, but in mixing together over the past three days they discovered much in common about moving towards a culture of participatory leadership with stakeholders, funders, learners, parents and children. One project even got started that uses KYB leadership with some support from UNISA folks to build it and see it off.
I think South Africa is a country that exists only because of partnerships and particiption. But much like Estonia, two dynamics are at play. First of all, with the struggle against apartheid now over, a creeping complacency has set in. There has long been extraordinary expectations on the ANC government, but what is catching people by surprise is the decreasing impulse for people to take charge in their communities. I heard this often over the course of the workshop – that there is a hunger for the kind of community leadership that was present in the struggle days, but which has seemed to have waned in the past 15 years. And secondly, like Estonia, South Africa is an emerging country and as such it is trying to perform well on the world stage. To do this, it makes a point of meeting the world’s expectations of it, trying to prove that things are going well and that progress is being made, and I notice that some people re reaching the breaking point in encountering the culture of management by measurement. This was another frustration spoken by many.
Participatory leadership is simply the application of what we have learned from hosting participatory meetings to bigger and bigger contexts. It asks the question what if we applied these principles to ongoing team, organizational and social contexts. To that end participatory leadership offers some relevant antidotes to groups that are suffering from the apathy of a surfeit of chaos or control. This week we found that out in spades I think. People are just quite open and interested in a way of doing things that involves others, that engages that somehow returns humanity to work.
In our work we shared models of hosting participatory meetings, described maps and practices that help us stay grounded and open, and explored ways of harvesting that were inclusive and holistic. In the end, several people stepped forward to crack open and lead projects within their workplaces to make work more inclusive, to work more with clients and learners, and to explore ways to apply some of these ideas and skills. One thing that I love about this work is how REOS is offering it as a part of an ongoing capacity building initiative with their clients. In doing that it continues a shift of seeing in ways that one participant described as “Changing the way change works.” With an ongoing relationship, coaching, and real work at hand, those that take up the practices and explore them in their own contexts will embark on a cool learning journey together, and my sense is that people will begin seeing the results they are looking for as their projects become more inclusive and co-owned by the people with whom they are working. And that is the whole point.