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What Leaders Can Learn from the Day of Reconciliation

Read four important lessons leaders can learn from the Day of Reconciliation, so you can move collectively towards the organization’s vision.

South Africa celebrates the Day of Reconciliation on December 16. This special day was first celebrated in 1995, just over a year since South Africa achieved its democracy. The Day of Reconciliation symbolizes the need for unity and collective healing. Despite the painful damage caused by apartheid, South Africans realized that to move forward, they need to foster national unity. While the past cannot be changed, we can opt to put it behind us and use it as a learning point.

In the work environment, each organization is on a mission—whether it is to achieve inclusion, reshape a purpose, or accomplish targets, each organization is walking on a journey to be a better version of itself. Many still fail and are struggling with it. But with each failure, we also learn something. In this blog, I will discuss some important leadership lessons I took from this day and how they apply to the working environment.

A brief history of the Day of Reconciliation

To understand the purpose behind this day, it is important to recognize the history behind it. South Africa was divided by apartheid—a racial segregation system created by Afrikaner, the minority white South African, against the indigenous black South African. The 16th of December was, at first, celebrated as the day the Dutch settlers won against the Zulus during the Battle of Blood River. On the other hand, the 16th of December was also the day when South Africans who did not have the right to vote after the war protested against racial discrimination. As this day is important to both communities, when the apartheid ended and South Africa gained its deserved freedom, the government decided to keep that day a national holiday to symbolize unity and the need to heal from apartheid.

When freedom was achieved, we needed to build a society that does not pit “us” against “them.” To achieve this, people from different backgrounds came together to define what the true purpose of the nation should be and how can we go about achieving this. Seeing humanity in an aggressor is not an easy feeling, when the aggressor recognizes that they too are human, working against humanity. Accepting and acknowledging this was the first step towards creating the ideal unified nation that we needed, and that is only where the work begins.

Lessons from the Day of Reconciliation

1. Empathic Leadership
Working with a variety of ethnicities, different backgrounds, and experiences, it is important to adopt a universal approach to your ideals. The idea is not to bend the workforce to your will and vision, but to devise a vision worth achieving. Your workforce serves as pillars of your organization, and these pillars are people who dedicate their time, mental, and emotional resources towards the achievement of your vision.

Empathic leadership is key in successful organizations. Empathy will allow you to see your people’s sacrifice mentioned above because they choose to be here to support you. You, as a leader, may not be able to walk in everyone’s shoes, but the weight of leadership does not have to be a burden on your shoulders. Therefore, understanding your workforce is important as it will lessen this weight, build trust, and most importantly, create a platform for purpose-driven tasks and healthy employees. There is also a misguided notion that needed to be resolved—and that notion is if there are issues that do not impact you directly, they are not your problem. Remember, while you may not see the impact directly, they have a direct impact on the success of your organization and the society at large.

2. Organizational Culture
As a leader, you set the tone for your company’s culture. Your lived experiences, beliefs, and assumptions are fragments that will trickle down your organization, either directly or indirectly. These could be good or bad, but you must be aware of them. It is not “you” against “them” towards a common goal. It is always a collective effort, through your guidance. Therefore, it is important to look at the tools you use to develop your culture—this must be an active and conscious design.

No organization has ever succeeded based on a passive approach to their culture. Tools provide you with insights you can use. For a democratic South Africa, these tools included sharing knowledge about all cultures within the country, their experiences, and history. This helped in designing the concept of a Rainbow Nation unified towards the growth of a nation.

Your workforce serves as pillars of your organization, and these pillars are people who dedicate their time, mental, and emotional resources towards the achievement of your vision.

3. Acceptance and Accountability
Failure, mistakes, tragedies are unfortunate results of our environment. It is imperative that a leader can learn from all of these to steer the organization forward. You will need to learn to accept when you have made mistakes and trust that you can lean on your workforce for support. Strength in leadership is not the absence of accountability, and acceptance should not be mistaken as a form of weakness.

The world is complex enough for us to understand that strength is context-specific—do you understand the context? For South Africa, the context was governed by the framework of our history and how we experienced it. In an organization, this can be found in how we handle failures such as missing our targets, resolving conflict and navigating through our structures and policies.

4. Move Forward 
There are more than enough lessons in the world that can prepare you to become a great leader but looking back and understanding how we got to where we are, is a free lesson that may not cost you a thing. But the cost of ignoring the history and context of your surrounding will be evident in how your workforce engages with you and your vision. Always look back and gain insight into your organizational context.

Strength in leadership is not the absence of accountability, and acceptance should not be mistaken as a form of weakness.

The most difficult thing for any person is finding purpose in an environment that was not designed for their success and well-being. The Day of Reconciliation reminds all of us that unifying a workforce that is driven by purpose and empathy is key to an organization’s success. Accept and acknowledge mistakes, and most importantly, use those as a learning point so you can move forward towards your vision.

Do you enjoy reading this blog? Have a look at our other leadership blogs for more useful insights!

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Seotlelo Rapolai

Seotlelo Rapolai is a Customer Experience Specialist at SHL in South Africa and is dedicated to ensuring that our clients receive positive experiences across all our services and products. Having spent almost a decade of his professional experiences in various roles HR, Project Management, and Sales, he has experienced most aspects of what makes an organization successful and some of the behaviors associated with the successes.

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