Intellectual Vandalism

A friend told me about a house he was building. It took months to get it nearly complete. Lots of work by lots of people, creating something of beauty that everyone could admire. A week before completion vandals broke into the property and ripped the place to pieces, just for fun.

Vandalism sits on the opposite end of the continuum to creativity.

This story has many parallels in the world. An employee spends hours working on a new idea only for their boss to reject it without offering any suggestions for improvement.

A child spends hours on a project only for a teacher to dismiss it without proper acknowledgment.

The hallmark of intellectual vandals are those that only break down without offering an alternative. Criticism is always welcome, if constructive. Intellectual vandals seldom offer anything constructive.

Their interactions mostly consist of vigorous attempts to shoot down ideas and make them less valuable.

The destruction of ideas, thoughts and concepts is much easier than creating new thought. Vandalism is much easier than creativity. As in the example of the ‘house-breakers’, the ‘idea-breakers’ use a fraction of the energy of the creative.

Like the child who breaks down sand castles on the beach because they are more beautiful than hers, the intellectual vandal looks to bring all ideas down to a size that he can feel less intimidated.

Zuma’s Wednesday Challenge

South Africa isn’t short of skills, people, resources or imagination. What it is short of is a common vision. Common implies most of us buy into it and will take whatever steps it takes to achieve it. Sometimes we will need to make sacrifices in the short term for the long.

The world has known a few common visions that have worked. Mahatma Ghandi brought the British Empire to its knees with his (it took 30 odd years). JFK put a man on the moon with his (7 years – watch and listen to his inspiring words).

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
(Read the full speech from Rice University on 12th September 1962)

Nelson Mandela galvanized a generation around his vision which took 27 years to emerge:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
(Read his full speech from the dock of the Rivonia Trial on 20th April 1964)

More recently Barack Obama got elected on the simple promise of “We can”.

Companies have been built on great visions too. Henry Ford dedicated his whole life to “consumerism as the key to peace” and his legacy stands for itself (despite most recent woes).

Bill Gates pictured a PC on every desk and got some people to follow him and look what happened. Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw an opportunity to organize the worlds information and Google continues to live this vision.

The word ‘Vision’ has unfortunately in recent years been killed by overuse. Consultants and others have reduced it to a ‘Vision Statement’, lost amongst piles of strategy papers, mission statements, values and principals.

Imagine Nelson Mandela with a ‘Vision Statement’ on the wall of his cell, neatly framed and repeated everyday like an affirmation. It loses some of its effect doesn’t it?

True vision is much more powerful than a plaque on the wall. It describes something which gets our hearts beating faster. It creates a desire to do more. It is compelling. When clear, the last thing I want is to be left behind or left out from that vision.

A compelling vision is also simple. It is not a shopping list or an agenda. It is bold, uncomplicated, accessible and embraced.

Unfortunately over the past years our country has become visionless. We are falling well short of our potential. Mbeki lost the plot once he got into the presidents chair. He became defensive and a petty squabbler. Arguing about the issues rather than raising above them. He fell short of the political leader that he could have been.

South Africa needs a leader who can inspire and unite. There is no place for division amongst true leaders. The leaders above are remembered for their bold view of the future which united people to join and follow them. Paradoxically it is simple and it is hard.

On Wednesday, Zuma will give his state of the nation address. His task is not easy, what is the single vision that could unite South Africa in 2009?

Vision takes time to emerge. Wednesday may however just be the start that we need. I believe that we are hungrier than ever for a compelling vision. Like a CEO taking over a troubled company, the bad times are sometimes easier to make bold moves and to change course decisively.

Dare we dream that it is possible.