UNBREAKABLE: LEADING THROUGH UNCERTAINTY | CONFRONTING THE BLACK SWAN
In this time of uncertainty, upheaval and downright surrealism, the notion of unbreakable has had incredible resonance for me. For the movie enthusiasts, yes, the thought was inspired by M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000).
The resonance sits in what it means to be unbreakable. In a perfect world everything is easy, comfortable and calm. Nothing breaks, there is no need for stretch, nothing needs fixing, and the status quo makes perfect sense. But we live in a chaotic world; one that requires change, courage, strength, and perseverance to navigate and remain relevant. Sometimes circumstances feel as if they are breaking us – but we survive … again and again until we are in fact, unbreakable. It’s this tension between breakable and unbreakable, and the process of breaking and rebuilding ourselves, that so captivates my imagination.
To make the concept tangible, let me draw on one of my passions: training! When we gym or exercise in whatever form, our muscles undergo a process. The fibres that make up our muscles physically tear, damaging the tissue. Once we rest, our body begins to heal itself, building stronger, better muscle tissue as a result of the trauma. The result is not just bigger muscles, but improved strength, endurance, and flexibility. Through the act of breaking, our bodies grow; get stronger and become more capable. Essentially, we have to break to become #better.
This paradox is challenging and confusing. We have to convince our minds to command our bodies to run against the very instinct that it is engineered to respond to. But the gym, the track, the ring, and indeed the playground of life demands it.
Martin Luther King Jr. stood on a bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965, facing armed state troopers and local police, with his wife and 2000 colleagues, supporters, and local and national community members. Just two days prior, on Bloody Sunday, marchers were mercilessly assaulted with clubs and teargas. There is no doubt that every instinct within King was driving him against leading that second march. He – and people he cared for – faced being beaten, going to jail, and potentially losing their lives.
But King’s – and every black American’s – context demanded they stay, cross the bridge, and defy the prevailing white authorities. 1960s America was dysfunctional, unfair, unjust, and unbearable if you were black. The circumstances were extreme, and considering them, it would be reasonable for King to back down and live with the white version of black freedom offered to him. But instead of retreating, King pushed forward, willing to be broken so that he may shatter the status quo.
Oppression, cruelty and injustice were the catalysts for who Martin Luther King Jr. became; for his ideologies, beliefs, and achievements. Dr King experienced oppression in the most personal of ways when in 1956 his house was bombed, in 1960 he was arrested for a sit-in demonstration, in 1962 he was arrested at a prayer vigil and jailed for two weeks, and later, when he was assaulted by a member of the American Nazi Party. In 1963 King was arrested and detained for one week and had his phone wiretapped by the FBI. In 1964 he was arrested and jailed for demanding service in a white-only establishment, the FBI attempted to blackmail him, and after King criticised the FBI’s failure to protect civil rights workers, the agency’s director J. Edgar Hoover denounced King as “the most notorious liar in the country.” A week later Hoover stated that SCLC (King’s organisation) is “spearheaded by Communists and moral degenerates.”
In a third march, 25 000 peaceful protestors finally made it from Selma to Montgomery. On March 17, 1965 the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced to Congress and signed into law five months later. It was one of the pivotal achievements of the civil rights movement and in American history. King’s courage and ability to – notwithstanding the context – keep moving, keep challenging, and keep pushing the boundaries made the change possible. In the end, this change would be paid for with his life, when on 4 April 1968 he was assassinated.
In a moment and context that pushes us to break, some of us are able to summon strength that we didn’t know we had; we are able to transcend the current context and break through into a new and different reality. The tougher the context, the deeper we dig, the greater the transformation.
The context we are facing in the early Autumn of 2020 in South Africa is probably the most challenging we have ever faced since our democratic liberation. Emerging from the devastation of a decade of state capture under the Zuma administration, the uncertain political landscape and the movement towards populist politics, the drone of the “this country will fail” narrative on the lips of scores of South Africans, the failing service delivery, the knife-edge xenophobic current tipping into brutal and unjust violence against our African brother and sisters … and that was all before COVID-19, a global crisis no one prepared themselves for, that is resulting in rapid economic decline, scores of folding businesses, armies of people losing their jobs and a fearful and physically separated society. This is one of the most difficult times to do business in, in South Africa and the world. One’s instinct is to fold inwards, to search for a break or a soft spot to land somewhere else. But running or hiding is not how we will realise the full extent of our potential and the incredible contribution we have to make to mother Africa.
This is a time for business South Africa and agencies like our own to keep pushing. How do we perform differently and better to get across the line? To rally those who need it and solve for the greater context. How do we show up differently? Growth happens outside our comfort zones, when we’re confronted with things we can’t possibly do, in a context that is seemingly impossible. In order to defy this defeatist narrative and redefine our context, it really comes down to the simplest of choices … and that is to keep moving forward!
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Making brave, bold, and great decisions, and having the courage to move through is the only way we thrive in this context. It’s the only way we break through. It’s in this tension – in the impossible – that we grow, achieve and redefine our contexts and realities. So, to my tribe, to all South Africans and to this global collective we can see ourselves so clearly a part of now, on those days where you feel as though you just can’t – and there will be many – I ask you to draw inspiration from the great icon Martin Luther King Jr. and keep moving no matter what!