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"Lead the people, not the structure!"

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

“Do not forget what it is like to be a sailor when you get to be the captain” - Tanzanian Proverb

People need care on various levels of their existence. Surviving, and then thriving, is more a collective effort than ever before.

The African concept of “Ubuntu” is already well know all over the world: “A human is a human because of other humans”, or, in other words, “I am because we are”.

There is also the quote that states “We are human beings, not human doings”. To “be human” takes a lot more than simply getting things done. “Being” requires care – not only of self, but of each other.

Leaders often make the mistake to assume that their approach towards their people should be strategized and designed according to the structure of the organisation or company. This is where a managerial approach towards people dilutes the leadership that is needed. No matter what the form or structure of an organization, team or company may be, as longs as you are leading people, there is life embedded in human origin and human need. In order to sustain life, and let live thrive, structural changes or strategies will often fail to inspire, give hope or provide much needed certainty and stability for people in a VUCA world.

An example from nature

The nature in Africa is as diverse as it’s people. From the desert of the Sahara in the north, to the tropical jungle in central Africa…to the plains of eastern Africa and the majestic mountains in the south – the vast continent of Africa is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.

In the south eastern part of South Africa there is an area called the “Garden Route”. Part of this incredible coastal region is a forest at a town called Knysna. Once much larger than today – because of the deforestation for the lovely wood from the large trees – it was once a place where wildlife abundantly roamed free, especially elephants. Today there are very few elephants left. But, the Knysna forest is still a place where you should stick to the trails and roads, as you may get lost within minutes. Like any jungle, the forest seems wild, unkept, even disorderly in its integrated plant-life and trees that closes off the heavens. One thing you cannot deny – the forest is alive. The fact that the trees and plants grow wild without patterns or structure, actually adds to the lively nature of the jungle.

Take a trip north, about 1000 miles, and you will find yourself in the most eastern province of South Africa, Mpumalanga (meaning “the place where the sun rises). The area is also known as the “Lowveld”, or “low country” because of its lower typography. In this region, you will find huge plantations of pine trees, planted in neat and orderly rows, mostly to be used for making paper. When you drive through the region, the beauty of the thousands of rows of trees over the hills is a sight to be seen. There are numerous hiking trails in the area, often through some of these plantations. Here, you should also make sure to stay on the trails and pathways, as every single row of threes looks exactly like the next.

The plantations are vastly different from the forests.

One is sustained by nature in its seemingly chaotic structure.

The other is manmade and sustained for the production of paper.

The question here is: which one is more alive?

- Both are.

No matter the order (or lack of it) within the structure of the plantation or the forest, you cannot deny that both are alive and growing.

Organizations are no different. You get some that may seem like plantations (think about chemical plants, factories, production plants, the military and the like), while others may again remind you of a forest (think start-ups, virtual global businesses and business in the informal sector).

No matter the structure or layout – where there is life, there need to be care for people. And today, more than ever, this is what is needed – putting humanity back into business, organizations and especially within leadership.

No matter its nature or form, your company is alive. The call to leaders in these times: "Lead the people, not the structure!"

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