Monday, October 22, 2012

And Still I rise.

The question would be not why I have selected this poem but, why would I not select this poem!

Maya Angelo’s ‘And Still I Rise’ was introduced to me when I was 11 or 12. I don’t remember exactly when but as a young black woman in an inner city school in London, I was blessed to have an English teacher who encouraged, coerced and insisted that we black girls, read work by black women. He would say over and over again ‘they can tell your story’. He was right that they were part of the documentation of the lives and the experiences of black women.

When I read this poem for the first time and for the many times over the years that I have turned to this poem, I now understand the strength, passion and motivation that I derive from reading a poem about my experience which has certainly  kept me going as a leader.

And Still I rise speaks to me as a leader because I am part of a group whose history says I am not supposed to be here.  My leadership journey has been a long one and when my mother died at my tender age of 16, it really was as the English would say ‘make or break’. I decided to make it (for better or for worse). At 18 I went onto university and had the pleasure of spending many hours with men and women from the Caribbean and from the continent who taught me about the history of the pan African movement, of enslavement, of the relationship between the industrial revolution, the UK banking system and the extraordinary amounts of money which were made during the years of enslavement of my ancestors who provided free labour on the plantations in the Caribbean, the USA and here in the UK.

As a student as I sat in many seminars defending what I knew would be a part of my responsibility as a black professional when I had achieved my degree. The debates in my seminars were often loud and sometimes aggressive as the significance of my being a role model and a mentor to black people who may not have had the confidence or the ability to experience higher education was a complete enigma   to my middle class white counterparts. I knew that the all white class did not understand when they said ‘why can’t you just do what you want’ and I remember laughing  as I looked at their worlds where their self identities, expectations and judgements had not be pulled apart and desecrated through an on-going media onslaught which black people face each day.  I was 19 years old and I was rising…
Out of the huts of histories shame
I rise
Up from a past rooted in pain, I rise
I am a Black Ocean leaping and wide
Welling and swelling, I bear in the tide
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave
I am the dream and the hope of the slave
I rise
I rise
I rise
This is history’s shame for the treatment of African people during the enslavement and movement between Africa, The Caribbean, the USA and the UK where millions of African lives were lost, and continued to be disposed of as, somewhere, African people, the people from whom I descend, were seen as less than human and hence, undeserving of any rights. When Maya states that…
You may shoot me with your words
You can cut me with your lies
You can kill me with your hatefulness
But like life I’ll rise….
The poem defies subjugation and passivity. It celebrates one of the most significant things that I as a black female leader can have, which is believe in self against the racism and the sexism, which could constantly undermine how  I move forward. Damn it, Maya is making no apology….
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise?
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
As a leader these are crucial lessons as there are always people who expect me to fall, to fail to not be great at what I do. As a leader, the question is what do I expect from me? What comfort zones do I walk in and which ones do I choose to move beyond?

I come from a long line of achievers and from people who are still achieving…against the odds. The African people who were enslaved are people who had dreams, ambitions and plans for their lives. They were unable to make these real. I am able to make mine real and as a leader, I bring rhyme, storytelling and laughter to my work for my humanity and my humility have taught me that, to rise to be the best I can be is the truest testimony to the lives of those who were lost.
I am the hope and the dream of the slave, 
So, naturally, there I go rising
Thank you Maya Angelou.

Mbeke Waseme

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How did he know?

When Major Robertson received news that the Colonel had lost radio contact with a Battalion, he wondered which of his new recruits could be tasked with going into the woods at night to ascertain their position. It was a difficult choice, but he decided to ask Lieutenant James Finlay, his new platoon Commander.

James had trained at Sandhurst, before being sent to the front line early in 1945 to reinforce the Seaforth Highlanders. He arrived towards the end of the battle of the Reichswald; his first and only Company Commander was Major Hugh Robertson, who had been in the theatre of war since 1942.

James had two strong impressions. These woods were exceedingly spooky, and the addition of excellent enemy snipers at very close range made everybody trigger-happy. Tension and vulnerability were all around: he was scared.

By contrast, Major Robertson had just returned from 7 days R&R, to discover that he had lost almost his entire Company. Of the three platoons who had joked with him just a few days before, a mere handful had survived the battle in the Reichswald. His loss was agony: from El Alamein to the D-Day landings, he had marched, fought, lived and laughed with these men. Moreover, the war was so near the end: the Rhine crossing just weeks away. Facing him was a massive influx of new faces, in whom he must quickly identify strengths and weaknesses. 

He knew:
  1. Excellent men could turn to jelly when the scents and sound of war were all around.
  2. You could distinguish the professionals from the amateurs only through testing.
  3. Fear was the most destructive of enemies.
To test his mettle, Hugh asked his new Lieutenant to look for the Lost Battalion. Sixty years later, James Finlay relates what happened:
“ I write my memoirs and remember the night in Feb. 45, when after a night skirmish, I was digging in when Hugh came to my position saying: 'The Colonel has lost the battalion and wanted someone to go and look.' I was frozen with fear; to go out in the dark woodlands seemed a certain equation to be shot at by both sides, as I put it. He was sensitive to my abject fear and said: 'Jim White will do it.' How did he know? Lt. White was carried in later after stepping on a schu mine. No one said anything, but I was rather shamed. A fine man."
These few words encapsulate what I was taught about leadership, and which affect my practice to this day. 
  1. Patience: it takes time for a boy to learn a man's job.
  2. Tolerance: if you cannot say anything positive, say nothing.
  3. Watchfulness: prior to the critical situation, identify capability.
  4. Decisiveness: once you have made your choice, accept the consequences.
So gentle was the test, that, sixty years later, James is still wondering how Hugh knew that Jim White would do it.

Linda Jane McLean

(Linda says "My sincere thanks go to James Finlay for writing this account, for his permission for me to record it publicly, and for giving his time for my interview.")

Thursday, October 4, 2012

I believe in you

My mother - the fabulous Marcy Heft - taught me that life is a gift.  And there are only a few things to do in exchange for this gift:

- Be amazed.  Notice the tiny little miracles that are all around you. Savor it.
- Take good care of each other.
- And be the very best you that you can be.

These are my navigational tools, and my practice.

My parent’s pure and unconditional love, honest communication with each other and with us, and their appreciation for the little things gives me this deep reservoir - this giant chasm - of belief in my self and in other people. Even people I have not yet met.

It allows me not just to wish for peace - but to be peace. And to have a calm and peaceful grounded place from which to navigate in my work with groups and individuals. To ride the waves of how life sometimes happens, take in each moment, and b-r-e-a-t-h-e.

Because I carry inside me this amazing seed of love and belief from my parents, I know I have quite a bit extra to share. Some years ago I made a promise to let people know that I believed in them, and to say so. My colleagues, clients and students hear me say this often - but especially when they wonder if they will do a good job, stretch into new territory, or take that leap of faith to make a change. “I believe in you.”

One day I was dining in a restaurant and I asked the food server what she dreamed of doing. She said she was passionate about becoming a teacher but did not know if she would be a good one. “I know you will be a marvellous teacher,” I said, “because you care so deeply about being a good one. I believe in you.”

Six months later I returned to the restaurant for lunch. She saw me at the door, brought her co-worker up to me and said to her co-worker, “This is the woman who believes in me!”
And she told me a story.

She was serving during a busy lunchtime and noticed that a woman dining alone in the back of her section of the restaurant was sobbing quietly. She did not know this woman, but she walked up to her, knelt by her side, touched her knee and said quietly, “I believe in you.”

Passing it on.

I once saw a television interviewer ask their guest, “What would you like to be remembered for?”  I would be happy to be remembered as the woman you knew - or maybe even didn’t know and never saw again - who believed in you. Who reminded you how amazing you are.

Lisa Heft