Our Youngers and Betters (part 3)
Africa is becoming the unavoidable inflexion point of a seminal battle of the generations. With a median age of 19 across the continent coupled with the deep-seated deference to their elders it was perhaps always going to come to a clash.
But it’s not only Africa that is experiencing this clash of generations.
The technology industry has been recently dominated by young, but huge technology businesses that are all founded and led by a completely different generation. They have changed the game and in rapid time have affected how we all live and work. This could not have driven by the old technology stalwarts like IBM, Oracle or SAP. Even Microsoft looked leaden footed and dated against these fearless, big thinking and big spending newcomers.
Breaking the Rules of Engagement
They broke all the established rules of engagement, utilizing business models that were all about stellar growth, market share and willfully ignored profit. An older generation stayed away from this “clueless and reckless” behavior. They predicted that it would soon “end in tears”.
The likes of Facebook, Amazon and Uber just laughed in their faces and dominated their chosen markets, and before long started eating the lunches of their venerable, traditional and docile ‘elders and betters’, who were by now fading rivals.
Ernest had been allocated to be my driver (and would soon become my confidante) for my very first week ever in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was careful, cautious and extremely helpful throughout my stay. He played his cards very close to his chest. It was instantly obvious that we were so different.
In a very short space of time we had managed to build a level of trust, friendship and mutual respect, despite Ernest being ultra-careful about how he engaged with me in the early days. Just by spending so much time together we had consequently got to know each other quite well. I had soon come to realise that his openness and friendliness made him very special, as this is, unfortunately, not the usual South African way. Recent history has made them far too wary of strangers.
This tension with anyone different, especially with their brothers and sisters from their neighbouring states, would eventually explode into full-blown xenophobia with tragic results.
Ernest was born in Soweto, and as life would have it, on exactly the same day in the same year, as I was born in Banjul, Gambia some 4000 miles north. This gave us an instant and authentic bond, and he appeared to relax a little and start to open up.
I invited Ernest to have dinner with me on my last evening before returning to London, not realising just how ground-breaking an offer this would be for him.
I planned for us to go to one of the modern eateries in Melrose Arch, one of the trendiest and most upmarket parts of Johannesburg.
Ernest was very smartly turned out. Having parked the car, Ernest and I found ourselves walking side by side, lost in deep conversation on a warm and balmy Friday night. Laughing together and totally immersed in our conversation, we never noticed that three young white South African men were heading towards us, occupying the entire sidewalk. They were also lost in deep conversation and laughter.
As we drew quite close to them, Ernest and I were so busy talking, that I never noticed him instantly step into the road, to allow them to pass. This was not diplomacy but hard-learned deferential behaviour. I continued walking and came face to face with them, still speaking to Ernest, who by now was some 5 metres behind me – and standing in the road.
I suddenly looked up and I was in touching distance of the three guys, and politely said: “Excuse me”, just as I would have done in a street in London. They looked very surprised, but smiled and immediately moved to one side.
Jaw on the Ground
It now dawned on me that Ernest was no longer next to me. I turned around and saw that he was a good few metres behind and still standing in the road, off the pavement. He just stood there with his jaw on the ground, wondering how I had kept on walking, and even more stunned that they had let me pass.
In turn I stood, with my jaw on the ground, not able to believe that he had felt compelled to step off the sidewalk and stand in the road.
This taught me a massive lesson. South Africa was definitely changing for the better, but some of the cultural shifts necessary will require a different generation which may well have to forget the battles for independence in order to embrace a more inclusive future.
We have a more aware, more activist, more philanthropic generation willing and able to use new technologies to band together with like-minded souls across the globe in order to change the world for the better.
What Our Next Generation of Leaders Might Consider
Authority and power are rarely easily passed on, it might be time for our next generation of leaders to consider the following:
- Seek to engage those from the older generation who are open to change
- Be clear that not everything old is bad and not everything new is good
- Try to ‘walk in the shoes’ of your parents and their peers – their viewpoints may be more valid once you appreciate where they are coming from
- Remember without the older generation and their struggles – you would not be
- Interact with them the way you would like them to interact with you
- The more we try to understand each other, the more we heal divisions
- Remain curious about alternative approaches to a similar destination – giving a little can achieve a lot
- Not everything can be done at once or at the same time – patience is not defeat
- The best leaders learn quickly that they are there to serve everyone
- Inclusion works
If you have an interest in the future of South Africa then you may be interested in our next Inspired Leaders Network event:
South Africa 2020: what does the future hold for Africa’s most advanced nation?
25 April 2018, 6-9pm – London Venue and broadcast live on Facebook