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From pain to possibility, thriving will be the reality of those who can lead when called and surrender to followership when required; those who believe that the team – the collective – is the priority.

“Are you warm? Are you comfortable? You got a warm blanket? ... Make sure you surround yourselves with your loved ones because it’s going to get a little chilly.” - Eric Larsen

Sleet, fog and icy winds have created a frozen South African landscape in one of the coldest winters I have experienced. My perception of how cold it really is is no doubt disproportionately influenced by the frozen state of animation of the world and her economies right now. They feel as though they are desperately coughing and spluttering in an attempt to come to life after the COVID-19 worldwide lockdown. Right now, self-isolating; hibernating from this impending feeling of doom to pause, rest, and come back when it’s safe, sunny and warm, seems like the only sane thing to do. But who knows what we’ll wake up to? From rampant fires in 2019 through hordes of locusts, we now find ourselves in a global pandemic. It’s not quite the 20-plenty we welcomed with great anticipation just six months ago.

If we dare to close our eyes – even for a minute – we will wake up in a world we don’t recognise. I believe the least we can do is choose to witness it changing and stay present enough to learn the lessons that will help shape a #better future.

Restarting businesses, economies, and countries is going to take the most monumental effort the world has ever seen. Each of us, no matter the title or position, will need to lead this renaissance. The circumstances require leadership like never before. Peering ahead, the future is obscure; a white expanse of nothingness not unlike the icy tundra of the Arctic and Antarctic.

But nothingness can be surprisingly complex. In 2016 in what is likely the last ever unsupported voyage to the North Pole (the northern ice cap is melting due to global warming), it wasn’t nothingness that polar explorers Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters found. Starting on their journey, almost immediately they discover the worst of Arctic terrain: pressured ice … stretching as far as they can physically see. When wind and ocean currents cause sheets of ice to collide, they fracture and compress, forming bulky ridges up to three metres high, over which it’s nearly impossible to drag a 145-kilogram sled. Realising that the only way to get through it is to team up, the duo first carries one sled, then treks back to fetch the second. They cover just three kilometres the first day, far shy of the daily 16 they need to beat the record they’re chasing. But they are moving northward.

No matter how bleak the outlook, moving forward, however far, together, is critical.

It is only by working in deep and sincere cooperation that we make progress, even if the success we gain is marginal. Teamwork requires a sacrifice of time and energy; the success of the collective is the success of the individual, not the other way around. This is a mindset to which we need to become accustomed. The journey is an epic one; economic recovery may take years to achieve, and there will likely be consequences we only discover in decades to come. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Small, daily, incremental achievements will shift the system.

Progress, no matter how small, must be made. Success is an ever-moving target and agility is going to be an essential trait for leaders and followers. Having short-term goals and continually reassessing the lay of the land, Larsen and Waters take advantage when good conditions present. And while good conditions occur, it’s not long before they change again.

As they watch, the ice underneath them shifts – they observe it moving in real time. If they stay where they are, they go backwards, a magnificent metaphor for those of us who believe being locked away and doing nothing is the best and safest course of action. As Waters says, you “just keep going forward because to hesitate is to die”.

If you allow the panic and freneticism that arrest thinking to take over, you’re not going to see and feel the world or read the feedback it’s giving you. A still mind focalises our priorities and enables us to act and react quickly. Having the right mindset to make it through and beyond the end of the journey is imperative. It’s easy to slip into lonely, overwhelmed, and scared. But our success will be a function of the stories we tell ourselves. If the story is we survive this, we bolster enough energy to do so. If the story is we thrive, the same applies. Larsen and Waters were living two different stories; running two very different races. Eric’s centred on his family, and his role as a father to a young child. Ryan focused on showcasing the liquefication of the Arctic as a lesson in climate change. As Eric grappled with his purpose and the purpose of the trip, Ryan became negatively affected. Realising the risk to the mission and their lives, Ryan steps into the breach and up to lead, helping Eric reframe his mindset and focus on real reason they’re there.

Eric’s attachment to being a father was not serving him in the deathly Arctic – a moment in which he needed to stay alive and move forward. Humans are hardwired to think about the past and the future; the narratives we’ve told ourselves about who we are. This deep obsession with and attachment to identity and the roles we hold onto so dearly makes it easy to become distracted from the present moment. In this sense then, the ego must melt, just like the great icebergs. We are scared to let the ego die because it means we cease to exist. But we must cease to exist; this version of ourselves anyway, so that a new version may be born – one moulded by the continuously changing present.

A new normal needs a deeply dynamic human response. It is equally about leading and following, great humility, and the embodiment of unusual courage. It’s about consciousness and complete surrender of the me for the greater good of the we.

Above all, we must prepare to be deeply uncomfortable all the time. Like the polar caps, our reality is melting, changing and shifting as we watch it. We are witnessing a landscape as foreign to an African as the Arctic, and just as perilous. But we are tenacious, bold, and resilient. We know hardship and struggle; we have prepared for this moment not only in this life but through the lives of our ancestors. From pain to possibility, thriving will be the reality of those who can lead when called and surrender to followership when required; those who believe that the team – the collective – is the priority.

It is the reality of those who are driven by a profoundly compelling why and unequivocal about what they stand for. It is the reality of those who cherish the value of progress, no matter how small, and those who are agile, ready to reinvent and redefine themselves as the context requires. Are you ready to let go of the old you, reimagine the future you, and be the leader that today needs? Put down that warm blanket and get ready to be perpetually uncomfortable; it’s going to be a little chilly, but you’ve got this!

© Natalie Maroun


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