Real Leaders

The Challenge of the future: A letter to an unborn son

There are now over 7 billion people on the planet. If we are to survive as a species, then innovative and brave solutions must be found. 

As expectant father, Markus Dietrich of the Philippines faces the questions that millions of other soon-to-be parents are asking, he writes a letter to his unborn son…

Dear Son, As your mother Suncheon and I eagerly await your arrival on earth, we are heading towards exciting times which will turn our lives upside down. That’s at least what everybody’s promising us. So before you take over our days and nights, I have sat down quietly to reflect on your childhood and what kind of leader you might become. I look forward to sitting down with you one day, once you have grown up and taken on leadership roles yourself, and have a conversation to compare notes.

Looking back at my own childhood I’ve come to realize that even back then I already had the attributes of a leader. This was not because I was special in any way, but rather through the attitude I had towards life. All children have this within them. Without any learning and studying, all children are born with empathy, creativity, unreason, curiosity and an eagerness to explore new and ever-changing worlds. In today’s management and leadership language we call it “emotional intelligence,” “innovation strategies,” “lifelong learning” or “blue oceans” – and we pay dearly for regaining them later in life.

So how do we lose this natural leadership along the way? Thinking back to where this loss occurred, I remember a few events distinctly, yet their importance is only obvious to me now. “Now they destroyed your creativity,” my father exclaimed, as I proudly presented to him my latest piece of school artwork, a watercolour painting of a balloon flying over a rural landscape. I didn’t understand what he meant, as I had just received my highest grade ever from the teacher. “But dad, look at the minute details in my painting, it looks just like a photo,” I pleaded. He pointed sadly towards my wild, free-flowing drawings from the past and said, “This is what I meant.”

As well as being one of my favourite bands from the 90s, Curiosity Killed the Cat is also an adage that being too curious can be dangerous. As a child, I asked my parents hundreds of questions around “what?,” “why?,” “how?” of life, the universe and everything else. I only learned later that the answer (according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is “42,” but at that time my parents patiently gave me answers I was looking for. I lost this unbridled curiosity during my adult life, too busy managing day-to-day business, while innovation was outsourced to the research and  development department.

It was only at age 40, after much soul-searching, that I realized what I had lost and have since worked hard to regain it. I now consider curiosity to be one of the most important drivers in my personal and business life. When I learned about Chinese culture as a teenager, I became fascinated by the ancient Chinese proverb: “May you live in interesting times.” Thinking this was a blessing, I went around telling all my relatives and friends that I hoped they lived in interesting times. I was sternly reprimanded and told that this phrase is actually a curse, as peace and tranquillity is preferred over upheaval and change.

But is change really a curse? For most children, tranquillity is not really an option and change is a given. Furthermore, we all live in interesting times nowadays, so this proverb has come true for all of us. As a leader in a prominent position, I am confronted with change all the time. I even generate it myself through disruptive innovations.

The darker side of the proverb become obvious to me when I experienced the loss of my first marriage and job within a few days. Embracing change in those moments was much more difficult and painful. However, it can also be much more rewarding, as profound change has turned out to be a blessing for me. I’ve always prided myself in an  ability to adapt as it’s helped me tremendously in achieving success in international business.

Only during the last three years, working in social entrepreneurship and at the base of the pyramid, have I discovered that an ability to adapt has some major drawbacks. It made me “reasonable” and  accepting of a situation, which worked best within my framework. However, being “unreasonable” is a major driver in my quest for social innovation and better suits uncharted territories which need to be conquered and where other approaches have failed before.

Over the last few years I have unlearned “reason” and now embrace my childhood genius of “unreason.” So, dear son, what took me 43 years to realize is – becoming a leader is to stay a child. I had to unlearn many things to reveal my buried childhood abilities. That is not to say you shouldn’t learn, your mother is a teacher and she will make sure you learn!

I will rather encourage you to nurture your natural childhood leadership so that you may carry this over into your adult life.

PS: While researching the origins of the Chinese proverb mentioned above, I discovered that none exist that correspond to the English phrase. I traced it back to 1930s England, from where the ‘curse’ spread to become a household phrase. Lesson: Don’t take anything at face value.

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