It is now common wisdom that an effective leader works with and not at the people they lead, that leadership is about service to people. In that way, Effective leadership creates a collective purpose, by stitching collectivising the power and powers of a group of people, the profundity of effective leadership creates a higher order of truth. And yet, the stories we have about great leaders provoke us to think otherwise.
In our society, we live with many legends of great men that single-handedly created themselves as icons. The lone genius that created Tesla, the maverick mind that negotiated South Africa’s democracy. The one monk that freed India through meditation. The lone genius mythology provokes us to imagine that if we succeed as a collective, we are not talented enough to do it independently. It encourages us to believe that working within community is naive and that, if we collaborate, we are simple-minded ants with nothing to inspire. This isn’t true. Not only is it untrue that anything great has ever been created by a single mind after isolated contemplation and rumination, each of the myths described above obscure the collaborations, and the work of movement building that is necessary to achieve great things.
I want to talk about the myth of the lone genius, and how it coopts us into devaluing working within community. Then, I want to talk about why you should dye your hair.
Lone geniuses, however brilliant and gifted, can only ever tell half-truths. To explore this, let's look at the story of the 6 men discovering an elephant. The earliest versions of the parable of six blind men and the elephant is found in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts, as they discuss the limits of perception and the importance of complete context.
The parable has several variations including one originating from Sufism, In physics, it has been seen as an analogy for the wave-particle duality. In biology, the way the blind men hold onto different parts of the elephant has been seen as a good analogy for the polyclonal B cell response. The only authoritative text in English I could find was the poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant" by John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887). As insightful, useful, and illuminating as it is, It’s palpably problematic in different ways too.
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceedingly stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
All were in the wrong!
From the parable, in the context of leadership, it is quite clear that if one of the men were to be a leader, they would stop obsessing over their own perspectives, however convicted they may be of them. Instead, an effective leader would listen to the visions of the group and collect these visions into a common image, a higher order of truth.
Let’s look at Nelson Mandela.
The mythology of Nelson Mandela invites us to believe that Nelson Mandela ended Apartheid on his own: “Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for opposing South Africa’s apartheid system. He faced harsh conditions meant to break his resolve, but Mandela refused to give up his efforts to achieve equality for all people.
“Despite the terrible personal cost of imprisonment, Mandela continued to act as a leader and mobilised his fellow political prisoners. After he was released, Mandela helped negotiate an end to apartheid and became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.”
All of this is true. However, what is not presented is how, in the 70s and 80s, much of the ANC and other political leadership was imprisoned, banned, or in exile. It took decades of activism from the people to overcome Apartheid. While Nelson Mandela was in prison for almost 3 decades, 18 of them on Robben Island, the people gathered their perspectives, skills and insights and formed the UDF, a kind of alternative mobilising vehicle that started to organise marches to parliament, in Cape Town, in Pretoria, Johannesburg with crowds of 50 to 80,000 people.
Internationally, campaigns for economic sanctions against South Africa gained steam in the 1980s. So much so, that when Ronald Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, the U.S. Congress overrode his decision with a two-thirds majority, passing the act to impose sanctions on South Africa. The U.K. also imposed limited sanctions despite Thatcher’s objections. The combination of international sanctions placed significant economic pressure on South Africa, which was then at war with the present-day nations of Namibia, Zambia and Angola.
It took many hands with knowledge and experience of some part of the elephant to overcome Apartheid, people that understood its internal organs, its skeletal structure, its weak points, its diet and its phobias. It took the armed struggle, feminist and queer activists, organisations and movements. It took organised labour and detainee support networks amongst many other perspectives, skills and energies to overcome Apartheid.
What Nelson Mandela did was to work within various communities and engage with others he struggled to understand – like Black consciousness activists, HIV/AIDS activists, environmentalists, etc. He listened, read and leaned into our various energies and worked in partnership with them. In that way, Nelson Mandela became a symbol of people’s power, the convergence point of many movements vying to create freedom in South Africa, on the continent and abroad.
The profundity of leadership, then, is that it is not so much about the individual genius of the leader, but their ability to collectivise our energy towards a collective purpose and a higher order of truth.
Why Is It So Important to Dye Your Hair?
Well, the service of leadership is not a matter of self-abnegation. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Mark Heywood, one of the founders and leaders of many movements including the Militant Tendency of the Labour Party in Britain, as well as the Marxist Tendency of the ANC, the Treatment Action Campaign and the Aids Law project which later became Section 27 in South Africa.
Mark is a white man who has often held positions of power over his life. Recently, Mark Heywood left the leadership of Section27 and described it as necessary for Section27 to continue to be effective and have impact.
Before speaking to him, I thought I knew what was going on. Mark has staunch Marxist roots and his stepping down looked like that Marxist act of self-abnegation - or even an act of constriction after the social consciousness of society shifted and highlighted the urgent demands of decolonisation and skepticism about white male leadership.
It's an act of constriction many of us have participated in, trying to state our positionality in the beginning of a research paper. “I want to write about Stokvels, but I just wanted to say, I’ve never been in one, and I’m not this and sorry sorry sorry sorry”.
Of course, the demands of intersectionality and positionality are critically important, that’s not what I’m describing here. Rather, I’m describing the self-abased leader who leads a concertedly humble life, who has sacrificed every human desire in themselves to serve the people. So I asked him in a podcast recording. This is what he had to say.
“Those organisations for me were always just vehicles. They weren’t ever about my power, but it was about trying to build power of other other people. It was about trying to use those organisation to enable capability, autonomy, agency in people in whom it has been suppressed….
“I was always conscious of a couple of things. One was that I, as a white person, a white, middle class privileged person who went to Oxford, and, that wasn’t wrong but it wasn’t right either. And I thought Section27 needs leadership that again, more people will identify with. That was part of the thinking.
“The other part of it, Adila Hassim who co-founded Section27 with me, and I created a very particular culture in S27 where everybody was equal, everybody was encouraged to participate in planning the strategy of the organisation, so, we grew people in the organisation. And there came a point when we could step back, fortunately. And we handed over to a team that is made up entirely of women, a new executive leadership that didn’t have one single man on, and an executive director, Umunyana Rugege, who is a black woman.
“But the more difficult thing of what you’re asking is.. You know, a lot of people in the struggle, this is not unique to me at all, think that an essential part of the struggle is self sacrifice. Sacrificing your personality, kind of dissolving yourself and your interests in the struggle. Not projecting yourself. Not drawing attention to yourself. And that’s a heroic tradition in one ways but it's a self-defeating tradition in another way.
“What I’m increasingly learning is you have to own yourself, in some ways. And you have to, to give space to the person you really are. Often in the struggle you have to suppress the things that may matter most to you. For many years I stopped writing poetry altogether and I didn’t allow my soul time to breathe. Now I’m learning that you can be a better revolutionary, a better activist, if you breathe. If you joy, and admit to joy.
“And I think that’s critical and I think that’s one of the problems of activists. If you lose your humanity, you can never appeal to people on a human basis.”
To be an effective leader you have to revel in your humanity too. It’s been quoted that often in the struggle, women were told not to have children or start families because this would only distract them from the struggle. But then who is the struggle for if not the people we love, including ourselves?
So, When we describe leadership that is based in community, often the read connotations are that to do that, we must obscure ourselves. The service of leadership that is obsessed with annihilating one’s interests, joys, family and humanity is not effective leadership. Joy is necessary for a leader to be able to connect with the people’s hopes of joy, success, and freedom
So an effective leader grows people, grows their abilities, their skills, their perspectives and their power. The profundity of leadership is that it takes people’s various truths and from them produces a higher order of truth - like the elephant, effective leadership takes the truths that an elephant is like a rope, a tree, a spear, and combines them into a single, higher truth. The elephant is all of these things. Effective leaders rejoices at the first rains of spring, are delighted at the worms in the pot plants. A leader invests time with the ones they love, they own themselves, they joy and they "seek beauty to its lair". So find your hair, and dye it.
 Matthew McRae, The story of Nelson Mandela: A will that could not be contained, available here. (accessed 4 October 2022).