Leadership in 2024: Navigating turbulent waters

Social entrepreneur and change-maker, Minnie Baragwanath offers five tools for resilience, possibility thinking and leadership in 2024.

The question almost every journalist asks me these days is, do I ever think, why me? While my life has had many highlights and moments of joy, I have had long series of struggles.

From losing my sight at 15 and spending time in a psychiatric ward in Japan after having a breakdown, to setting up and running a very successful social change agency only to then be diagnosed with breast cancer and later have a very rare heart attack, my life is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

But I have never thought, ‘why me’?

What I did ponder is what kept me going time and time again. Why did I keep getting up after every knockback? Was I particularly resilient or had I worked out a way of being in the world that enabled me to keep striving to live a good life and contribute to the world? Why did I never feel like a victim? And was there something in my approach that could be of value to leaders and executive teams navigating complexity today?

Curiosity trumps fear

One day when I was out walking Floyd, my extremely social and resilient wee West Highland terrier, it occurred to me that he is rarely fearful. Instead, he is profoundly curious about everything in his environment. Everything is something to be discovered – the vacuum cleaner, the rubbish truck, even fireworks!

In watching Floyd and reflecting on my own life I realised that it is almost impossible to be consumed by fear when you are feeling curious. When we seek to understand or make sense of something, our brains shift away from our primal fight-or- flight response into a space where we are open to possibility and connection.

Clear sight

Facing the truth can be brutal and painful, but we need to be brave enough to take off our rose-tinted glasses and see the world as it is. The more we can face what is in front of us, the better we can deal with it.

we are designing our future selves out of the world by refusing to adopt a possibility or an inclusive design approach in all areas of how people live

Among the obvious truths in life are that we will all have a disability someday; the world is still deeply inaccessible to millions of people every day; we are designing our future selves out of the world by refusing to adopt a possibility or an inclusive design approach in all areas of how people live. The leader’s job is to point out the blindingly obvious, the inconvenient truths.

Not seeing is believing

We need to maintain a deep sense of faith or belief in the world that gets us through those times when we cannot see how we will find a way. Being blind has taught me that we don’t need to see the path to walk along it: we can navigate without seeing every detail and signpost along the way. I do, however, need to sense or feel them as I go. Sometimes one step at a time is all we can do!

Getting back up

Being knocked down is unavoidable, so you have to learn how to get back up. It is possible that as this happens, we start to build muscle memory – our bodies and minds remember how we did it last time, and we know it is possible to get back on your feet even if it seems overwhelmingly difficult at the outset.

In one of my knockdown periods, I had to deal with breast cancer and a mastectomy as a blind woman and then a massive infection, pneumonia, blood clots on my lungs, a wound that did not heal for five months, burst sutures that required additional surgery, radiation treatment, blood thinners, antibiotics and more. For a full year I was scrambling up and getting knocked back time and time again.

One of the techniques I use is connected to cognitive behavioural therapy. I use evidence to understand what has happened and I gather data to help me make sense of the situation. I also use powerful sounding boards to talk to about my life and work – since having cancer in 2015 I have had regular sessions with an amazing counsellor and coach. Having a special human to help process challenging situations and provide a powerful reframe is essential.

A sense of possibility

I have always had a strong sense of the possible. Perhaps from reading Greek myths and legends as a child, or from being encouraged to play and explore in the outdoors growing up near Massey in Palmerston North, I am open to the unlikely, the magical, the miracles in life. I think we all should be.

As a blind person I have faced society’s low expectations, and felt others try to squeeze my life into a small frame. Every time I have refused to accommodate limiting stereotypes, I have gone on to prove that anything is possible. I have strengthened and flexed my possibility muscle and mindset, which enabled me to take audacious or taboo steps, such as going to university at 16, founding my own social change organisation, and writing my own book.

These days I see any effort by other people to limit or box me in as a leaping-off point and a powerful springboard. It prompts me to redefine and reimagine. Now when people ask me, Why would you set up your own business? Why would you write a book? My response back to them is, “why wouldn’t I?”

Being ‘with’ our access leaders

After 25 years of striving to drive and effect social change throughout Aotearoa and the world, the most powerful and transformative concept I now hold dear is the knowledge that unless we all learn how to be deeply ‘with’ our access leaders, innovators, and designers, we will never create a more accessible society for all.

From running my social change organisation Be. Accessible (now Be. Lab) for 10 years, I learned that when my chair, board, and team were with me, we absolutely flew.

All CEOs and leaders in government, community, and business must learn to embrace and employ a ‘with’ approach in their organisations.

By being curious, noticing our own limiting beliefs and blind spots, embracing a possibility world view, and letting go of some control, leaders can set up future access leaders, designers, and innovators to reimagine and create a world that is equitable, innovative, and transformative for thousands of New Zealanders and millions of people internationally.

As leaders, the greatest impact and legacy we can have is to embrace a ‘with’ approach (not ‘for’ or ‘to’) in our organisations and our daily lives. As we think about what is important to us in 2024, I have a question for all leaders: What kind of leader do you want to be? One who promotes self-determination and possibility for all people? Are you willing to be ‘with us’?

Minnie Baragwanath is a social entrepreneur and changemaker. In 2023 she published her first book, Blindingly Obvious, in which she shares her life story candidly. www.minnieb.co.nz

Image Supplied by Minnie Baragwanth.

Visited 66 times, 4 visit(s) today

New category for 2024 Diversity Awards NZ

The 2024 Diversity Awards NZ, which celebrate excellence in workplace diversity, equity and inclusion, will include a new Respectful Culture category, says organiser Diversity Works New Zealand. Diversity Works chief

Read More »
Close Search Window