In the 1950s, the government of South Africa was oppressive. There was little hope for the freedom-seeking efforts of black South Africans. Then in 1955, an idea was introduced: a “Congress of the People” representing every group in the country would draw up a charter containing principles for the creation of a new South Africa.
People from two hundred organizations responded to the question, “If you could make the laws… what would you do?” Asking the people to envision their own future caught the collective imagination and gave rise to a national conversation about purpose, integrity, connection, and learning. Suggestions came from everywhere. The document that emerged was short, clear, and inspiring. It became an organizing image.
In the years that followed, the oppression was extreme. Many efforts seemed random, feeble, and hopeless. Yet in the chaos, the vision or organizing image remained and gave inspiration. While it was almost impossible to see, a new order emerged and gave rise to the new South Africa.
The account is a dramatic illustration of a critical principle. When the people know their highest shared purpose, they can empower themselves to act. They may feel alone but they are actually a part of a larger system that is emerging.
There is an implication for organizations. In complex systems, there are endless distractions. When leaders step into this network of distractions and make the highest purpose clear, the people have an organizing image. They know where they need to go and what they need to do, even if there is no one there to tell them.
- Have your people been asked to envision their own collective future?
- What would change if they had such an organizing image?
- How could you lead such a process?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?