Vulnerability in Leadership

As a leader, I recognize how important it is for me—and those leaders I follow—to discern how we express our leadership in the workplace. Similar to the Compline in the Christian tradition of the canonical hours, we can take time each evening to reflect on our day and review how we spoke and interacted with others. In addition, we can examine our motives to see whether we truly acted for the good of others or instead worked for personal gain or advantage. Then, in a gentle and non-judgmental manner, we can reflect on how to better lead others the following day. While I am not suggesting it is wrong for leaders to receive some benefit or merit, I do think that when we make decisions for personal advantage, we may in fact work against the collective good. I want to be a leader that is self-aware without being self-absorbed.

With this self-awareness comes recognition of our personal strengths and weaknesses. When leaders try to hide their weaknesses or limitations, we present ourselves as a model of perfection. Generally, this is accompanied by extremely high expectations of others in the workplace. While I don’t think leaders should go out of their way to highlight their flaws and imperfections, I appreciate the authenticity of leaders who demonstrate a degree of personal vulnerability. As a leader, I want people to recognize that I am a human being with feelings and challenges and failings who can relate to their own humanness as well.

Another aspect of vulnerability is the willingness to trust others with important tasks and responsibilities. Leaders are often viewed as the problem-solvers, but are generally far removed from both the problems and the knowledge necessary to solve them. Rather than micro-manage people, it is often far more effective for leaders to empower frontline staff to address problems head-on as these staff will recognize issues as they emerge and will know how to respond accordingly. This empowerment can happen when leaders identify the things we value, are most concerned with and want to see more of, which then leads us to build on people’s strengths as opposed to focusing on their weaknesses. In addition, leaders can promote positive growth by demonstrating appreciation and celebrating successes, which helps foster an organizational culture in which people feel pride about their accomplishments and are motivated to seek continuous improvement.

Empowerment does come at a risk, though, as leaders are ultimately accountable for results. However, leaders that utilize a strength-based approach are more likely to create a positive environment that promotes greater work performance and the improved well-being of employees. The benefits far outweigh the risks.

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Identity as a Social Construction

Before becoming a doctor, a person is required to attend medical school to learn how to treat the human body. While learning these skills, the budding doctor will also acquire the cultural competencies that will help shape her identity and provide her with situational power. The same holds true for a lawyer, a police officer, or someone in the corporate world.

Not only is a professional’s social identity defined personally, it is also constructed through social ascription. For example, while a doctor may decide to express herself individually (ie she may prefer to ask for patient input into treatment rather than be directive), patients may have a different expectation based on how the identities of medical professionals are socially constructed. As such, it is useful for all professionals to consider how their identities are shaped both personally and socially as there may be limitations to how much they can personally define themselves. This is important to understand, particularly by those working in professions—such as police services, politics, Faith-based activities—that are viewed negatively by some sectors of society.

When I used to volunteer with children in Toronto’s Regent Park community, I was often surprised by how many of the young people I interacted with viewed police officers in a negative manner. This was in sharp contrast to some other communities in the city in which children would view police as heroes and the good guys. Some children would get excited about hearing a siren, others would want to run and duck.

As we approach the annual Pride Parade in the city, it is also essential to acknowledge how identities are socially constructed, as this will help us understand why it can be difficult for some members of our city, such as those representing Black Lives Matter, to accept the presence of police marching in official uniform. While many of us would view the police services in a positive manner, and also see recent evidence of meaningful support and engagement with groups such as BLM and the LGBTQ community, there is a long history of negative interactions which have legitimately shaped how these groups view the police. It will take time for this to change, as these social constructs are deeply rooted in painful experiences.

It is not easy to redefine how we want people to view us, particularly when there have been incidents of hurt and marginalization. This doesn’t mean that we should stop seeking opportunities for reconciliation, but if we have been the cause of pain or oppression, we need to acknowledge that we do not get to control the process or the timeline for healing.

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Cultural Influences

When I lived in Zimbabwe from 2006-2008, I tried to learn as much about the Shona culture and language as possible. I was fortunate enough to live and work in an environment that provided little interaction with other westerners, so I quickly picked up enough of the language to carry out basic conversations. What I found fascinating was the existence of Shonglish (a mixture of English and Shona words) and the ways in which it was used.

The influence of Western culture (whether from the U.S., U.K. or even South Africa) on Zimbabweans was obvious, particularly among youth and people living in the larger urban centres. In many ways, it’s as though a new culture was being created with a new set of social and cultural values. While the Zimbabwean government controlled most forms of mass media in the country, and used these channels to communicate their anti-Western rhetoric, the people’s use of Shonglish and their eager engagement with Western media highlighted both interest and adoption of Western influences.

It was also interesting to observe how some aspects of Western culture created tension. While most of my movies and TV shows were eagerly borrowed by neighbours and colleagues, some were returned secretly and never discussed, such as The Last King of Scotland and The Interpreter, with the latter movie actually banned in the country.

On a more humorous note, I also remember being in a small, rowdy cinema that was showing a movie (can’t remember which one) that involved a kidnapping with a ransom of $3 million dollars. While the scene was meant to be dramatic (and would have been in North America), we were experiencing hyperinflation at the time and the government kept printing new denominations of currency, so each person in the cinema had paid nearly $200 million dollars in local currency just to watch the movie. Instead of being shocked, the audience just erupted in laughter.

 

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Totems

When I lived in Zimbabwe, people often asked me about my mutupo. In Shona culture, a mutupo, or totem, is an important symbol of identity within clans and communities. Each person is given the same totem as their father, which could be an animal such as the lion (shumba), elephant (nzou), zebra (mbizi) or monkey (soko), or even a body part such as the leg (gumbo) or heart (moyo). Early on I was adopted as a shumba, while my wife, Rochelle, became a soko murehwa. Yes, this means I married a monkey.

It is forbidden to eat of your totem, so a mhofu cannot eat of an eland, a ngwena of a crocodile, nor a bpepe of a lung. More importantly, you cannot marry within your own totem, which helps prevent intermarriage within tribal groups.

In Zimbabwe, it’s highly respectful and formal to address people by their totem. Once people knew that I was a shumba, this became the primary name used to address me. Rochelle, in turn, was referred to as Amai Shumba, or Mrs Lion.

My totem connected me with other shumba across the country. As I travelled around Zimbabwe, I met hundreds of new fathers and brothers who were my extended family. In addition, it felt as though I met thousands of fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law who I was connected to through my wife’s totem of soko murehwa. Why so many more in-laws? Well, if you had to get down on the ground and clap your hands for every ambuya (mother-in-law) who called you her mukwasha (son-in-law), you’d also think the numbers were significantly higher. Rochelle used to share an office with a woman who was also married to a tsoko, which made her one of my many ambuya. Every time I entered their office without knocking first I was reminded that I owed my ambuya a fine. There are so many rules for mukwasha to follow. Let’s just say that I still owe a lot of chickens for my many infractions. And let’s not discuss the many conversations about lebola (bride price or dowry).

There is something beautiful about the way in which totems connect people in Zimbabwe. The totems are also accompanied by praise names, such as shumba nyamuzihwa, and praise poems and songs, which help people to understand their history and origins.

However, there is also something troubling about how this can negatively impact abandoned babies who grow up without a familial totem and praise name. In a culture which generously encourages families to look after all of its members (even extended family), it is sadly not expected, and sometimes even superstitiously avoided, to look after those who do not belong to your family or who have no known connection to their ancestors. This lack of a totem can also impact a person’s ability to marry or to be buried appropriately. In a country with such a low life expectancy, and with so many orphans and vulnerable children, this is a concern that can’t be ignored, particularly when it puts marginalized people at even more risk of isolation.

But when I think to my first culture here in Canada, with our western notion of closed and small family groupings, I still prefer the wider sense of community and familiarity found in Shona culture. I miss travelling through Zimbabwe to new communities with the expectation that I will be closely connected with others living there, despite knowing that I will likely need to get down on my knees and clap for my countless ambuya.

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