When I was a kid growing up in Malawi, I was taught to always listen to my elders and obey authority. The lessons of what befell those who were disobedient were told as bedtime stories and graphically illustrated in political rhetoric. So its not surprising that I spent the first 12 years of my life as a very quiet, at times extremely shy and obedient child.
My schooling in South Africa at the age of 12 changed all that. I remember a turning point when my passive obedience was shattered: I was a new kid adjusting to being a foreign student in a country steeped in a rich and complex history. South Africa was on the brink of democracy with Nelson Mandela about to take up presidency after being released from 29 years on Robben Island. The air was thick with racial tension and uncertainty. On one of these eerily tense mornings, my new head teacher shoved a red circled timetable into my nervous sweaty palm and asked me why I had not been attending my Afrikaans language classes.
It took a while for me to work out a few thoughts in my head. I thought about the question he asked and wondered why there was no Zulu, Xhosa or Tswana or any of the other Bantu languages on the curriculum. I wondered what this meant in terms of valuing all races equally. As I stood there craning my neck to look at his towering figure, I lost my unquestioning obedience and respect for authority. And I liberally and quietly told him as much.
I got detention for the first time ever that day. And you know what? I enjoyed every single second of detention spent in that dusty school library. I enjoyed it so much that my walk from class to the library was always one of exaggerated pride and often accompanied with high fives from other students. I never did attend a single Afrikaans class that year. I instead spent my time mobilizing other students to do the same and sit out Afrikaans classes until Bantu languages like Zulu and Xhosa were on offer.
It wasn’t long before all manner of students were going home to tell their parents about this set of unusual play at the normally placid and peaceful school. Whilst the faculty figured out how to avoid embarrassing publicity and how best to change the curriculum whilst saving face, my classmates and I spent time reading books about people who had been moved to action by something that just felt wrong and unjust. People who had felt small and fearful but still challenged powerful and unjust authorities. We debated on different styles of defiance from the likes of the vocal radical Malcolm X to quiet and unassuming activists like Rosa Parks. We read and discussed books like The Power of One and cheered on the characters who were united against Apartheid despite being from the disparate Black and White worlds of the then divided South Africa.We especially relished the part when the main character, Peekay proclaimed ‘Little beat big when little smart. First with the head, then with the heart.’
By the end of the semester, detention was no longer detention. It was a stimulating hub for debate and discussion, for students and teachers, on how power works and how to peacefully overcome inequality. Some might say that we were foolish to take on the very people who would determine whether we passed high school or not i.e. the faculty and school board. And to some degree, I suppose we were. For a group of 13 year olds, there was a lot at stake, but doing nothing seemed to carry a bigger stake. You might be glad to hear that a happy class of 1997 graduated with little incident and that most of us had a passable level of Afrikaans and a Bantu language under our belt on graduation day.
Looking back now, I see that traces of this ability to challenge the status quo remain within all of us, but all too often it seems harder to activate as we get older. This led me to read up on organisational activists by leadership and innovation thought leader, Helen Bevan and Breaking Through Leader Yvonne Coghill. I was both amused and enlightened to read and see illustrations of people who had started their careers with a determination to improve things for those who use their services/companies but soon lose this drive and instead opt into conforming. Sometimes at all cost.
Numerous literature suggests that there is a distinction between being a leader and a rebel. Whilst I agree that the two are by no means the same, I believe that a good leader stands up for what they believe in and moves people to act in order to rebalance power more fairly for the better good of all. However, anyone working in an organisation nowadays is faced with a conundrum: according to Harvard Business Review, most companies do not value heretics and instead reward conformity and obedience. The value of those who dare to question and challenge the status quo should never be underestimated. Even IBM’s successful resurrection as an internet leader is ascribed to a group of rebels who shook things up and ultimately brought the computer giant into the 21st Century. So it seems to me that the ability to rebel effectively is a skill that needs to be nurtured alongside the ability to move others to act and challenge the status quo. This can in turn be a mitigating force against a company’s stale ideas or social injustice. A rebel has to use transformational leadership in equal measures to their defiance. Because a rebel who doesn’t move others towards collective action, ends up without followers and is nothing more than a rebel without a cause.