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How do we lead when the world is burning?

My best friend from high school is jewish. I am part egyptian. For almost 2 years, despite much pleading and negotiating, we weren't allowed in each others’ homes. That was peaceful and prosperous Germany in the 90’s. But distrust, anger and fear had followed our parents' hearts and minds well beyond the geography of the Middle East.

It took curiosity, commitment and the deliberate choices of two teenage girls, to create an opportunity for a shared meal that shifted our small worlds. Now living in different parts of the world, but connected through a bond we had to fight for. And fighting, we did. But not with the anger, hurt and fear we have been taught to feel for each other. But with radical curiosity and acceptance for our differences. And for ensuring there was space for these in our friendship.

Over 20 years later, shortly after October 7, we spoke. To check on each other and our families. To offer space for disbelief, grief and sadness. And to remind ourselves that a ceasefire must be possible. To acknowledge that there is not a single view of right and wrong. And that hurt feels the same, no matter what part of this earth you are walking and that hurt acknowledged, by both parties, can be a healing balm. That two peoples with a history of hurt and hate that spans decades, might find opportunities for reconciliation in that shared experience of pain - if we allow it to connect us. If not through love and forgiveness at first, then at least with the willingness to end the suffering that civilians, and disproportionately children, are experiencing.

“The moment we choose to love, we begin to move against dominion, against oppression. The moment we choose to love, we move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate us and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom.” Bell Hooks

Meanwhile, there are other emergencies also demanding our attention, our donations, our compassion. The continued conflict in Ukraine; A mounting gender apartheid and femicide of girls and women in Afghanistan as they are being pushed into the invisible crevices of society, only allowed to exist as property of and in relation to men; A rising tide of fascism in India, that remains unaddressed amongst the global conversations on trade, access to resources and market share; The climate emergency that is separating and displacing families across the globe; The ongoing refugee crisis, reported sporadically from the shores of Europe; Do we ever learn?

The sheer scale of human and planetary emergencies that demand our attention, care and action, is overwhelming our collective nervous system. So we have entered a shared state of numbness, an inability to process - with most of our daily lives lacking the space, time, relationships and practices to hold and work through the terror and trauma that feels omnipresent. Unless immediately affected, many of us no longer have capacity to engage with pain, suffering, discrimination, short sightedness, anger, frustration, injustice. Our own crises are real too - how do we extend a life raft to others when we feel we are drowning?

Meanwhile, we are also kept ‘busy’ by deadlines, deliverables, bills and ‘should do’s’ that keep our cognitive load sufficiently high to prevent reflection, presencing and embodiment of any kind, which are often the precursors for moving beyond a state of apathy and towards connection.

Where then, are the leaders who will help us get out of this mess you ask? And as terrifying as this may be to admit, there are none. And there cannot be ‘some’.

Harm and hurt are externalities of the infrastructure with which we built this world. The good news is, that whatever we have built, we can be rebuilt. The hard news, is that each of us will have to part take in rebuilding the systems that govern our collective interaction, decision making and Miteinander (German = to be with one another).

We have been taught that leadership is about individuals taking action, being visible, being decisive, and having a plan on how to move forward. Yet increasingly, this type of leadership is becoming a desperate way to claw at air time, in a bid for control & power. A leadership that pretends to have simple solutions in a world that is complex, volatile and utterly unpredictable (VUCA). It is the type of leadership that perpetuates our current system. It cannot be the one to dismantle it.

Yet, amidst all the pain, the helplessness, the fury and rage, leading us towards a different future requires above all, compassion and curiosity for those we have learned to ignore, hate & hold responsible for our own suffering. This is the hardest bit.

And despite what the news cycle might like us to believe, we see tiny seeds of hope emerge if we look hard enough. People who do exactly that:

Jews in many parts of the world, protesting the actions of the Israeli government, speaking up about injustices perpetuated in their name, international aid organisations refusing to take sides, but instead honouring our shared humanity. And if we look closely, we can find more of these in our own communities and neighbouhoods. Someone, sharing food with their neighbours, covering another family’s outstanding bill, offering a hug or a kind word in the face of someone else’s devastation.

These are small acts in the context of global phenomena. But these are our blueprints for new leadership beyond the status quo. They require us to think and act differently. Importantly, they ask us to relate to ourselves and each other differently. To think and feel, not from a place of scarcity, but abundance. To question, not from a place of judgement, but curiosity. To hold space for conversations, not to speak, but to listen. And to be with, not walk away from, discomfort. To understand, that the current system thrives on our disconnect and that any future we might seek is desperately dependent on our ability to reconnect with ourselves and each other. To elevate our shared humanity above profit, power and short term goals.

I acknowledge that this reflection is possible at the intersections of layers of my own privilege - most acutely felt right now by the fact that I need not fear for the well-being of my family and many of my friends. That I can make time for this because my time is my own, and not scheduled on someone else’s terms. That I can post this and need not fear for my safety, should your perspective differ from mine.

None of what I have shared is easy. But it is entirely possible. The leadership of simple answers has failed us. Where we can, let’s discover where each of us might have capacity for holding space, being with our and others’ grief and pain and for listening and asking questions. This will be hard. But it is entirely possible.

The ‘fight’ cannot be against other people. A hurt repaid will haunt us and follow us into the next generation. Our options are to do the hard work of radical compassion and reconnection ourselves, or leave it for our children and their children to accomplish.

Without a change in the system we all participate in, our experience and that of those we love, will not change.

So please don’t ask me to take sides, to choose between different systems of oppression. Ask me to join my voice to yours as we elevate, and amplify our shared humanity. Tell me about how you are sitting with your fear, your anger, your rage and how - despite or because of all of these - you are creating opportunities for us to stand together in our differences and weave our path into a shared future. And ask me how I can help with that. Because the changes we seek are too big for us to carry alone.

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