There was a time, shortly after I had started directly working with and supporting abuse victims that I experienced disturbed sleep. I dreamt that my bed was filled with spiders and I regularly woke having turned the light on or shaking the duvet out. This was anxiety, on a surface level about the traumas I was encountering, but deeper than this through my exposure to abuse I discovered the foundations about how I understood the world to work were being rocked and changed – not necessarily for the worse.
Encountering diversity and change brings uncertainty and fear, moreso if you’re not ready for it, and you need a little time to find your feet. I can’t help but think that the often repetitive and cyclical conversations and conflicts locally are, whilst deeply connected to legacy in Northern Ireland, in many ways manifestations and symptoms of a broader crisis of identity and trust.
I think most children, across backgrounds and cultures are broadly raised to value fairness, kindness and trust among many other little life lessons. If I fall I will be helped up, if I lie I will be challenged, if I steal I will be disciplined, if I hurt someone I will be stopped. These values are instilled, if somewhat inconsistently, from playground to classroom, to dinner table to paddling pool.
As adults we slowly, falteringly and often disappointingly learn that as life rolls on people fall and don’t get helped up, that people can lie and steal and get away with it and people can hurt people and carry on doing it.
Whether is is unemployment, abuse, depression, cancer, manipulated bonuses or riots the world doesn’t work as simply, as clearly, as principally or as smoothly as we are taught as children. The trust that we build our esteem and identity on can often erode, waver and in the absence of any safety net, personal growth and/or support we falter, stop, can’t rest, lash out or grow repetitive in our requests for fairness, kindness and some of the trust we were certain of in earlier years.
For twenty first century communities here in the UK/Ireland we are flailing in our uncertainty and lack of trust. What we have been attached to as a society in the past is no longer present, reliable, relevant or inspiring and our so-called public and or elected leaders are either determined not to look that reality in the eye or are oblivious to it. The leaders that move amongst us, living, working, role modelling and defining vision and promise are invisible, unheard or unseen, perhaps because we are, or are being told to look the wrong way.
I’ve been considering the influence of the collective memory passed on to nationalist/loyalist communities in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Patriotism & Swagger piece I published last week. I’m interested to explore here what I see as a deeper collective cultural experience and crisis of trust and leadership where many individuals, communities and families find their own expressions and protests. Where the institutes, structures, systems and authority are more questionable than ever, I am drawing a conclusion that we may possibly be one of the hardest generations to lead. It’s not difficult for me to list here only some of the decisions and revelations that have highlighted the frailty and the diminishment of power and leadership in recent years, causing hurt, disillusionment and/or a deep mistrust:
- The abuse scandals that have rocked the Christian churches* around the world (*regardlesss of denomination)
- The UK MP’s misuse of public funds regarding their expenses
- Declaring war on Iraq
- The evidence that most sexual abuse is carried out by someone known to the victim and that 1 in 20 children have been abused (NSPCC)
- Bankers with large bonuses despite bailouts with public money
- The closure of hospitals and understaffed social services, medical and teaching teams
- The amount of money spent on royal birthday parties and weddings
- Lance Armstrong being stripped of his titles due to drug misuse
- Someone setting themselves on fire in the face of injustice and oppression and the subsequent Arab Spring
- The strange and unsettling sense that Edward Snowdon and Wikileaks are onto something
- The presence of and violence against the Occupy Movement
These incidents highlight to me the ‘crisis’ present in traditional leadership roles and institutions and we’re often faced with the ultimate lack of trust : violence (whether that is war, protest or riot)
Those who have roles and lead institutions need to start accepting the reality that relationships and leadership has broken down, and those do who have the trust and the following of people and communities really need to start thinking about leadership. It doesn’t take much looking to discover the wide range of conversations about leadership and change theory that we have in this big, beautiful and messed up world, there are a whole lot of characters, methods and models experiencing and implementing, practicing and evaluating. I’m not too sure how much of this is going on in the public, political or social and cultural world. We’ve many accidental leaders and many assumed leaders and they probably need change places and start giving up some power and listening more.
In order to engage in a conversation about leadership, you have to assume you have no power – that you aren’t in ‘charge’ of anything and can’t sanction those who are unwilling to do your bidding. If, given this starting point, you can mobilize others and accomplish amazing things, then you’re a leader. If you can’t, well then, you’re a bureaucrat. – Hamel/McKinsey, Harvard Business Review
We’re the hardest generation to lead, we’ve lost a lot of faith and trust in a lot of previously powerful people and institutions. We currently trust festival organisers more than our politicians in terms of return and delivering on what has been promised, we relate more to the lyrics and the vision and imagery of music artists and pop stars than those we call to our bedside when death approaches, or those who call us to and declare war.
Yet, if you can lead this generation we will really be following, if you can work out what leadership is aside from the same politics played for forty years, without the fear and trembling of hellfire and brimstone, knowing the destruction of dignity after war, abuse and oppression – then we will follow. We need leaders who will understand our experiences, capture our hopes and articulate them and construct a vision of justice and hope that is based on concrete mutual and radical definitions of people and dignity. You have to assume that you have no power, that you have no authority and perhaps – if we follow – we may give you some.