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Taking A Stand! Are you an Ostrich or a Story Teller?

November 12th, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Question: If you could stand up and defend anything, what would it be?

I was asked this question recently in an interview with Women With Know How Magazine, and wanted to share my response. As you read what I will stand up and defend, I hope it inspires you to consider your own answer to this question.

My Answer:

We all need to be heard and understood through our stories.

Did you know that by the year 2050, 97% of the 438 million people who join the workforce will be from emerging economies?  I read this in an article by Michael Taylor titled “Emerging Markets, Emerging Talent.”  An emerging economy can be defined as one of “foreign” origin, growing, yet possibly volatile, promising huge potential growth but also posing significant political, financial and social risks.

This statistic, while impossible to imagine, certainly is predictive of what the business world might look like, especially for those of us who work and live in the United States. Closing the gap between where we are today and where we need to be in order to survive and thrive in this new place, should not be left to futurists while we pretend and promote “business as usual.”  Change is hard, so we practice good ostrich posture. 

If we are ready to call ourselves citizens of the world, not just of our national allegiance, we need to get moving now.  But what does that mean?  For one thing, we definitely cannot be in true community until we feel connected.  Connections are formed in sharing life stories, knowing where we and others have been and are going.  Only in knowing someone’s “story” can we truly know them, be connected to them, and hope to have any kind of working relationship with them.

For the last four years, I have had the privilege of visiting and working in Central and East Africa as an executive coach and organizational development consultant.  Africa is often viewed as an exciting Safari adventure, or the chance of discovering hidden ancient treasures. The reality is what we don't see on travel brochures or in blockbuster movies. It is a reality of devastation, hunger, genocide, disease and orphaned children.

In the course of these four years, I have had two profound experiences. One happened in Uganda, where I was an American woman somehow responsible for providing a week-long leadership summit for fifty African leaders from eight different countries. For months, we designed and planned and designed again. Yet the same question surfaced over and over. Will what we do be relevant to their world?  Will our ideas about leadership and how organizations change be viewed more like the colonials who have historically responded with power grabs among perceived weaker peoples?

The leadership retreat gave me the gift of knowing the essential ingredient, the “secret sauce,” in facilitating this and any future transformational leadership experience – including doing business with “emerging economies.”  I’ve already stated it:  You can't truly know someone until you know his or her story.  This is it.  This is the way.  This is the only way.  People make up those emerging economies, and people have stories.  And, until they are known, and you are known through our stories, no one can even begin to trust a newly combined community when change is happening quickly and the whole future is at stake.   And without mutual trust, there is no long-term endurance to any community.

At this leadership retreat in Uganda, each night after dinner, we listened, laughed, cried and learned to know the pain and joy of becoming victorious over the most challenging survival stories.  We listened as one story led to another.  We listened until there was only shared silence.  Fifty African leaders shared their personal and communal stories of transformation from victims of circumstance into victors of hope and change. And, then they listened to ours. How powerful it was to be known by my own story. Now all fifty leaders, and the four of us who supported this week, are knitted together through our life stories.  Real trust began those nights.  Our focus was not just internal, it was external, larger than any one of us separately and greater even than all of us combined.  Individual stories became shared stories.  Individual lives became a community.  We found shared strength in each other’s stories.

Yet, less than two years later, I almost abandoned what I found and declared to be true.  This was my other profound, life-changing experience in Africa.  After nine months of serious training to attempt a climb of Africa’s awesome Mt. Kilimanjaro, and a successful effort to raise awareness and money to help multiple initiatives in East Africa, the day to start our climb brought me to my knees, to my own ego-driven struggles.  It wasn’t about anyone else’s story at that moment.  It was only about mine. 

With the known odds of less than 50% of people making it to the summit, I was quickly sobered into an ego-centric fear. What would I tell my family, friends and colleagues if I did not finish? I journaled about my anxieties, and shamefully had to honestly acknowledge that what I once billed as a “Climb for A Purpose,” became only a me-centered solo potential for failure.  I had forgotten my climbing community, and was only focused on my personal fears.  What would it mean to me if I did not make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro?  At that moment I didn’t care much about anyone else.  Just thinking about what might lay ahead, climbing 19,341 feet (and the very real potential of altitude sickness), through five different climates, six days of living in tents, and summit temperatures of 15 degrees below zero, consumed me.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a team challenge.  There were six of us, including the guide, yet my personal ego, pride and real fear kicked in, and my judgment about others included having quick and unfounded opinions of them.  Thankfully, during the trek, the same ritual of sharing life stories emerged. One by one, I was able to know each of my fellow climbers through their stories and they came to know me through mine. Bonds and trust grew, and fears subsided because I came out of my personal space into a community place.  And when it really counted, each of us had opportunity to be our best for one another during the climb.  And, the end result?  The sweet victory of all six of us standing atop Uhuru Peak.

While not everyone has an appetite to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or to travel halfway around the world to work, the realities of our global world require that we embrace others different from ourselves.  We must reconcile our differences and suspend our judgments by hearing each other’s stories.  People are people, not matter where they are from.  We all have our stories.  Whether it is an emerging economy or a new seemingly strange community, success is found in shared story.

My work experiences in Africa and on other continents have transformed me.  The global community is growing, and I will be ready.  Will you?  I have been touched by the lyrics from Brooke Fraser’s song, “Albertine.”  It speaks of the stories of Rwanda, and the horrors experienced there.  Once we know the stories, we cannot resume ostrich status.  Fraser sings:

“...now that I have seen, I am responsible
Faith without deeds is dead
now that I have held you in my own arms, I cannot let go till you are.”

I will never let go of the people I have swapped stories with in Africa and other places.  Their stories are now mine, and mine theirs.  I will not let go – I will embrace.  This is the only way we will succeed globally, the only way we will achieve peace of any kind.

Are you an ostrich, or a story teller?  Do you hear the stories of others different than you, and embrace them?  Something to think about as we ponder our future together.