From Above




Updated: Nov 2

“The inside-out approach says that private victories precede public victories, that making and keeping promises to ourselves precedes making and keeping promises to others. It says it is futile to put personality ahead of character, to try to improve relationships with others before improving ourselves.”

― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

It was June 2002, and things were about to get real.

Being South African, we are constantly busy with an ebb and flow of racial and cultural-based profiling. It’s been institutionalized for hundreds of years, and we are particularly good at also systemizing it into our legal frameworks. The most widely known (and most obviously evil) example was Apartheid.

In the construct of Apartheid, white people thought they were better than everyone else, and needed to keep themselves separate for things to be ok.

Now in June 2002, we were already 8 years into the project that was Rainbow Nation building. All the old archaic laws might have been repealed, but feelings and emotional constructs are less easy to erase.

I decided to go study a Modular MBA at Stellenbosch. Due to travel conflicts for work, I elected to do the English Modular course (I would go in 2 weeks out of every 4 months for full-time study, and it would take me 3 years plus a thesis to attain the degree).

There was an option to study in Afrikaans. Stellenbosch is a historically Afrikaans university, and the language, a variant of the old Dutch the early settlers spoke, is also my mother tongue. I did not choose English instruction for any other reason than scheduling, but boy I am glad I did.

I had a great experience. Most black people in South Africa resist speaking Afrikaans due to associating it with the Apartheid regime. English is deemed more acceptable and is the language of international business, and my class was truly multicultural. English, Afrikaans, black, white, Indian, coloured, male, female, young, old. It was very cool for me, and when they split us into smaller groups, I was also exposed to quite a range of backgrounds and experiences.

And we were a high-functioning class. I was in a group of multicultural students that pushed me to work harder, perform better and bring my best. By the time we reached our third year, we had been together for a few years. Some students had dropped off for various reasons, and the class had shrunk. The same was true for the Afrikaans modular cohort.

This is where things took a turn. The administration made the call to merge the two classes for some of our sessions. Particularly for the sessions where the instruction would need to be in English, due to that session being hosted by a visiting professor who did not speak Afrikaans.

One of our courses, at this point, was Organizational Renewal. It was all about change management, and for us, it did deliver. But not in the way or style that you would think.

The lecturer was this lovely diminutive Indian woman named Dr. Babita Mathur-Helm. She was tremendously qualified and quite extraordinary. Her biggest mistake was overestimating her audience.

Our first cohort session she had us, among other things, go out into the garden and meditate. Classes felt like a lot of free conversation and not a lot of referring back to the prescribed textbook. A lot of self-exploration stuff, if I remember. Our assignment between cohort sessions was this:

“Think back on your life, and link your primary experiences (those things in your youth) to your adult self and behaviour. How has your childhood shaped who you are today?”

I remember this well. I was cycling regularly with my buddy Grant at the time, and we both thought this was a mind-blowing exercise. It was probably my first real encounter with intentional journaling. And thinking, for the first time, how a childhood fight, a spoken word from a teacher, a careless action from a parent, an encouraging gesture from a peer… how these things influenced and shaped me today? It was powerful. Writing it down, even more so.

We submitted our homework, and we happily went back to class a month or so later.

And a sh*tstorm of epic proportions descended onto the University classroom.

There were grumbles from a certain section of the classroom. We called them the “Geesbeeste” – they were archetypal Afrikaans men (and quite representative of the Afrikaans class). They were old-school engineers sent by their large mining company, and they wanted straight lines. Linking lectures to homework, tasks to texts, and clearly defined parameters for the evaluations. They absolutely did not get what she was trying to do, and they went to complain to the dean of the faculty that she was messing up their education. She failed all of them, by the way, on the assignment (I assume they just didn’t do the deep work).

This filtered through to the rest of us. People talk, you know. What also filtered through, and whether this was the bush telegram or not, is that they were unhappy with the class merger. They were worried that we would bring the standard down.

“Bring the standard down?” WTF??? I’m Afrikaans like you, idiots. And these people in my class are rock stars.

It was a helluva big look into a feeling and a world that so many people that are not white dudes experience.

The class energy became toxic. The dean stepped in to facilitate an intervention, and to her credit, Dr. Muthar-Helm took it all in her stride. I did feel sorry for her, people started to really lay into her.

But here’s what happened. An open conversation ensued. People of colour stood up to express the hundred ways discrimination is still present in words, actions and tacit behaviour. The white engineers expressed their frustrations with the system, where at work, they were constantly under pressure and stress because of ill-qualified colleagues hired on the basis of affirmative action.

Cultural biases were exposed. Trust was still low. Wounds ran deep.

The conversation, however, was the first step toward healing. The class, after that, did pick up speed. I don’t necessarily believe lifelong friendships were formed or legacy constructs eradicated - and a lot of folks won’t value it as the most critical part of their MBA experience – but for me, it was one of the most impactful.

Stephen Covey calls it the Private Victory. First, conquer and understand self, and make a choice whether you want to blindly follow or take control of your inner constructs and paradigms. Only then can you effectively show up for others.

In the Enneagram work that I do, they talk about the hidden self. That part of you that has been obscured by the personality you built during your childhood. You had to. You had limited tools to deal with the trauma, and you picked a lane. The public is who defends the true you against the world. It’s the part of you that can deal. But now that you’re an adult, you have more tools. If you peel that onion a bit, you can rediscover that hidden self, and maybe explore what it’s like for that part of you to also live in the sun a bit.

I think understanding our hidden biases, and working with them, is some of the most powerful work we can do. Taking the time to understand yourself, and others, is a lifelong journey. But it’s one worth taking.

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