The future is unknown. And deeply unknowable. No matter the depth of our experience, or the rigour of our disciplines and our past practices, this is the defining feature of leadership in 2021, and beyond:
Our maps are obsolete. Our most prized skill sets have become outdated. Our most entrenched people practices have revealed themselves no longer fit for purpose in an agile, disrupted world. Like the vast, unpredictable horizons of the Namib, our emergent landscape is one of shifting sands and disappearing tracks.
In this brave, daunting, mapless world, leadership has never been more important. Or more
How do you lead people into the vast unknown? How do you inspire confidence in an era of disruption, change and re-invention? How do you motivate people to follow a bold, audacious vision – to march into a proverbial desert – when the safety of the known has been ripped from underneath them?
DEEP TRUST. AND THE DAILY, LIVED EXPERIENCE OF UNCONDITIONAL AND ABIDING SAFETY.
The starting point of our Namib100 journey is 50 km south of Walvis Bay at Modderbankies (literally mud banks), which was the prehistoric mouth of the Kuiseb River. Our group of 23 hikers are the only people walking this vast desert in a southerly direction, heading deep into the wild, away from civilisation and most worldly comforts.
The journey of close to 125 000 steps, over five days, begins. The sea is my marker – my proverbial North Star – for as long as the sea is on my right, I’m walking in the right direction.
Each new step is a step into the unknown. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado captured it beautifully: “Walker, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” This rings especially true in the desert.
In this daunting, unforgiving landscape, physical safety is key. But equally important is the trust we have, as we follow the simple tracks of the advance vehicles, that we are on the right path. That we are led in the right direction. That we are in safe hands.
This trust is earned and re-earned, several times a day, at predictable 5km markers.
A highly visible red bakkie – one of the support vehicles – goes ahead and waits patiently, a few kilometres ahead, with essential supplies. No matter how blistering the terrain, or undulating the landscape, the red bakkie orientates, guides and motivates. Far enough ahead to mark the challenge; close enough to guarantee safety.
No matter how tired we get, or how punishing the terrain, the bright red bakkie 5km ahead holds the perpetual promise of rest, relief and accomplishment. So we walk on. We follow the tracks the bakkie has laid down for us. We follow, and we trust.
How do you lead people into the vast unknown? By providing the non-negotiable safety that inspires unwavering trust. Not occasionally or in times of success or accomplishment alone. But every day, even when the going gets tough. Especially when the going gets tough.
This is the principal role – the sacred responsibility – of empowering leadership. Great leaders set bold, audacious challenges. They set off daringly, they lead the way, and inspire others to follow with equal vigour and commitment.
But they never lose sight of the deep humanity of the people they are fortunate to lead. They understand the value of challenge and vision, but they never lose sight of the fragility and the vulnerability of what it means to be human. Of our deep, psychological need to see the red bakkie in the distance.
What might this look like in your own organisation? What are the psychological safety markers – your own unique red bakkies on the horizon – that signal safety, and ensure trust becomes a lived experience?