Recently, I had dinner with some extraordinary leaders — men that are established in their field, have influenced their communities, and are showing significance in their lives. While at the dinner, I began to gain more clarity on the question I have brooded on for years now. A couple of years ago, I besieged myself with a simple question: Why do bad things happen to great leaders or people we term good people? I had gone about interviewing people close to me and fascinating people I came across all in the bid to understand why bad things happen to great and good leaders. I decided to write an article about it when I was studying the story of Joseph in the Bible early in the year. It was a study I was having with a group of women.
Joseph the dreamer
I have always been fascinated by great leaders and their stories, and that of Joseph stood out for me. For those of you not aware of this common Bible story, it is in Genesis Chapters 37 to 50 of the Bible. The story goes on about a Jewish boy that was born out of an amazing love story. Jacob his dad worked for over a decade to gain the hand of his true bride, he actually was duped by his in-law during the first wedding. On purpose, he was handed the wrong bride but he was so determined. He was then allowed to marry Rachel as well, in return for seven more years of labour. This union produced a child that received amazing affection from his dad and then attracted the envy and jealousy of his siblings from the first wife.
Joseph spent most of his early adulthood going through such trying times even though he had a good attitude, work ethic, and leadership skills. All these are traits that make great leaders. He would go on to face greater adversity as he became older, demystifying the assumption that great leaders are immune to adversity. His brothers ganged up and sold Joseph into slavery and lied to the dad that he had been attacked and killed by a wild animal. The slave traders took him to Egypt and sold him to one of the officials of the then king Pharaoh called Potiphar.
Though he was doing a good job in his master’s (Potiphar) house, he got framed. His master’s wife made allegations that he molested and tried to rape her. For a servant that got promoted to the manager of the household, I imagine that no one could have spoken up for him in his defence, at least not the other household servants. While thrown into prison, he must have felt betrayed, maligned and victimized yet he clearly pushed forward. He got noticed by the warden for his exceptional work attitude and leadership skills and got to be an informal leader while in prison.
Leadership Does Not Absolve You From Pain
This also reminds me of the Nelson Mandela story. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned there for eighteen of the twenty-seven years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. During my visit to Robben Island where he spent most of his prison time, I was told he stood out while in prison, offering to teach most of the prisoners and even the Wardens in prison. Sometimes these lessons were at the quarry while they chipped at the limestone. He became some kind of mentor they trooped to for advice.
As described on BBC News, he was teaching political economy to his fellow prisoners. This article goes on to describe how his Fellow prisoner Walter Sisulu spoke of a day Nelson Mandela’s emerging leadership among the inmates was displayed in a rebellion over the quarry: “The prison authorities would rush us…’ Hardloop!’ That means to run. One day they did it with us. It was Nelson who said: ‘Comrades let’s be slower than ever.’ It was clear therefore that the steps we were taking would make it impossible ever to reach the quarry where we were going to. They were compelled to negotiate with Nelson.
Great Leaders Learn to Sit Through the Fire and Keep Moving
That brought about the recognition of his leadership. His amazing leadership was enumerated by his ability to forgive his captors, inviting one of his former jailers to a dinner marking the 20th anniversary of his release from prison, and inviting his former prison guard to his inauguration ceremony as president of South Africa. It was while in prison he earned a Bachelor of Law degree through a University of London correspondence program making lemonade out of his lemons. He was no saint but was a great leader.
The same applies to Joseph, his brothers that sold him into slavery visit Egypt when he now is like a chief operating officer or second in command in Egypt, he treats them well, gave them food and never was he vengeful.
I have had my fair share of bad things or circumstances that are very uncomfortable. In my career, I have had cases where I walked away from jobs when I felt the toxicity in the environment was way above board. When you feel stabbed by those closest to you, all in the bid to take a position you occupy or hinder your promotion for no other obvious reason than to protect themselves at least that is how I perceived it then. In one case in particular, I had a boss downgrade his role to take mine in a bid to avoid a company restructuring that was going to affect him.
I see great leaders close to me suffer for no fault of theirs, an amazing mentor of mine, who I admire went through unbearable pain in their relationship and career at the same time, and you start to wonder “Why do bad things happen to great leaders”. I have always been curious about this topic, when a CEO of a multinational organization I know suddenly lost his role due to macro-economic factors that seemed beyond his control, I was one of the ones that meet with him seeking to understand why he thought it happened, what he could have done differently to change things.
As I spoke and discussed this topic with friends, and religious and secular leaders, I became more perplexed. Was my premise totally wrong? It was clear I was getting nowhere trying to understand why “bad things” happen to great leaders. What really is the definition of a bad thing? It is very relative. My premise is based on an assumption that “bad things” are experiences that are uncomfortable, painful, we have no control over and are not deserving of our actions or intentions. It was clear everyone had their share of “bad things”. Maybe great leaders, and people we term very successful are no different from us mere mortals. Have we put them on a pedestal, taking away their humanity? The ability to feel pain, discomfort and all range of emotions that we go through due to such experiences must be a necessary requirement to be human, to grow.
Reframing the Perspective
My meeting with Azim Jamal and Magnus Mchunguzi, one a great mentor of mine and the other a great mind I was starting to admire, made me relook at my perspective. Maybe the question should not be why bad things happen, but rather how great leaders deal with bad circumstances. It was clear now that we would all one day face an evil day, no one Human is immune from this. In life, careers, relationships, and health, we discover, experience and deal with circumstances we do not like and can cause immense pain, hurt and discomfort. These men shared some amazing stories with me about their lives, and I began to notice one common thread: how they related to these circumstances or experiences. They both saw it as a means of growth, their narrative was about how it made them a better person, lead to something more positive or they refused to be victims, seeking to rather understand the other’s party’s shortfall or humanity.
Feel the pain; Keep Moving
Remember the saying by Michelle Obama” To go high when they go low”, however, we all know it is easier said than done. My message is that life requires that we make this a continuous exercise of always seeking to polish the lens through which we see most of the hurtful experiences we go through.
Due to our current knowledge at that time, place in life, and exposure we have, we might be unable to fully understand and comprehend these experiences when it happens. We can however choose that it will not define us and push through the pain to move forward, constantly working to prevent these experiences from blurring our perspective of life. We should be asking “How best can I go through this”, and “What can I learn from this?” Yes, it is okay to feel pain and hurt, it is all part of our humanity.
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