Being trusted across the divide: The real leadership challenge?

Leadership and impact
5th December 2014

To be trusted across barriers. Certainly a goal worth striving for in times of social, political and organisational change. Leadership of the highest order must surely be one that builds unity on difference.

Trust in a divided context

Nelson Mandela died a year ago today. He devoted his life, and forfeited his freedom, to bringing unity to South Africa. His legacy was a blueprint for leading in a way that inspired trust across divisions.

Reflecting on what Nelson Mandela represented gives us a glimpse of what is needed in a leadership that transcends difference. First there was the courage to stand firm for equality, even though it often meant standing alone. Then there was the compassion and understanding which enabled him to forgive those who had acted against his efforts.

Both political and systemic, the divisions can be traced back to 1948 when the Afrikaner National Party won the general election under the slogan “apartheid”.

Learning at the heart of the divide 

I had the privilege of being part of a study tour to Cape Town. It was the late 1990s and I was with twenty others undertaking a Kings Fund nurse leadership programme. South Africa was still in the aftermath years, post-apartheid. We were learning about the impact of rapid social change on universal services such as health and social care, education and the judicial system. It was deeply humbling; meeting and listening to the stories of those (on both sides of the divide) who had lived through and had actively influenced the changes.

When there is a non-linear societal shift of this magnitude everyone feels at sea. Former social norms have to be relinquished and allegiances abandoned. As well as bringing opportunity it can be a time of phenomenal loss. My personal learning from this study tour was immense. It was a life-changing experience and deeply influenced how I worked with organisational change in my subsequent directorships.

Living the change 

Understanding the origins of present difficulties can help us to see that there is often no single perpetrator or cause for the situation we find ourselves in.

Like Nelson Mandela we sometimes just have to accept ‘what is’ and strive to model something different. He lived the change he wanted to see in his world and in doing so his influence spread across the world. Despite his disempowerment he became immensely powerful. I still feel a shiver down my spine when I think of the poem, Invictus quoted in the film of the same name. Remember the last line?

“….. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul”

Even when Nelson Mandela became a world-wide phenomena he retained his humility, his sense of humour and his tenacity. Importantly, he retained his authenticity as an ordinary, yet truly extraordinary human being.

Transcending difference….closer to home

The South Africa experience enabled me to truly understand the value of striving to be trusted across barriers whether they be organisational, cultural or professional.

Much of my work in Scotland brings me into contact with leaders who are striving to integrate health and social care services. They are endeavouring to break down a divide that has separated these services since the NHS came into being in 1948 (interesting parallel). The associated challenges cannot be underestimated.

I stand in awe as I see many leaders modelling the Nelson Mandela blueprint for transcending difference as they build trust across the divide. The beneficiaries will be the most vulnerable in our society. On their behalf I thank these leaders for their efforts and their tenacity.























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