“A natural born leader…”
“I am flattered,” Prof Karaan said as he humbly agreed to share his experience and insight on social change with us. Prof Mohammad Karaan is currently the Dean of the Faculty of AgriSciences at the University of Stellenbosch (US). He serves as advisor to the public and private sectors in many spheres, with agriculture and economics being his forte. He also serves as Commissioner on the National Planning Commission to the Presidency.
Prof Karaan defines an Agent of Social Change and comments on how he regards himself as being a part of, or facilitator of social change.
Without hesitation, Prof Karaan equated social change with leadership. In making sense of the task of bringing about social change he defines leadership as the ability to go ahead; to bring together action and a vision of the future in order to produce change. He emphasized that the world doesn’t need any more managers, “who merely maintain the status quo”, but leaders “who see the future and act accordingly”. These leaders are out there but are hesitant to raise their hand as they are often undervalued. The degree of leadership required to bring about change is leadership that not only demonstrates personal effort, but embodies self-sacrifice, exhibits influence, and uses systems worth following to accomplish tasks.
He regards prophets as the greatest leaders as they lead their people as a shepherd leads his flock. This wonderfully explanatory metaphor describes how leaders and leadership in its essence is based on the actions of a shepherd. He likens the two based on three primary tasks: As a shepherd leads his flock out in the morning to graze on new fields, so too a leader should walk in front when venturing into unknown territory. As a shepherd leads his flock to the safety of home at nightfall, so too a leader should follow from behind and be watchful as the people take responsibility of their familiar tasks. Lastly, a shepherd’s most important task is to keep his flock united by gently steering them in the right direction, especially those who are most prone to run away.
There is one characteristic trait that Prof Karaan makes distinction of as he would not be the leader he is today if he had not acquired this early on in his life. Resilience to persevere. Prof Karaan developed resilience in his time as a student in the 80’s. One defining moment in his career was in 1988 when he was ready to leave US due to its systemic racism, especially since he was “the only black in a white department”. His Professor (clearly an agent of social change of the time) went to him and said, wait, don’t go, “one day, what counts against you will count for you”. Despite his challenges, he decided to stay on at Stellenbosch and finish his degree. Enduring these tests was difficult, but the reward was of a much greater measurement. This resilience is a defining characteristic that pushes one to live above the challenges of other’s inadequacies and trivialities. The staying power of a leader is what develops character and insight that cannot be gained artificially in any other manner.
He admits that the road he walked here in the 80’s was not an easy one but he found motivation in the small gestures from unexpected places. Such as the kindness of the cafeteria lady, Mrs. Kleinhans, who lovingly respected his religion when others would not, and Mr. Golding who unselfishly lifted his financial burden. These seemingly small acts at the time provided the fuel he required to become the leader he is today. He thus emphasizes that the little things in life, the gestures of kindness and treating others with dignity and respect, form the band aids that allow for social healing.
Prof Karaan differentiates the role of post-modern agents from the role that his generation had to play in social change?
The challenges that people face today transcend across many facets of life in comparison to the challenges of the past which were more rigid. People have more freedom today and are more open to previously suppressed issues. This increases the complexity of our social dynamics. Today the individual has more rights than the group. Gay rights need to be respected. Information is available freely to everyone. The population has doubled. Diseases like AIDS are booming. People want to be global citizens in place of South African citizens. There is no more right and wrong, only the right of the respective group or individual. Today everything is relative and clarity has become an individual feature, no longer a societal or community based understanding.
We are living in a world where everything is in abundance. This is the precursor to the collapse of the world under its pressured systems and prevailing self-absorbed attitudes.
Agents of change today do not have rules to play by, the game has changed completely, yet the principles remain the same; change should always focus on the people involved and leaders should ask the question: “Does the institution serve the people?”
Prof Karaan explains the difference between the challenges a student town university like US face compared to the city universities.
A long term flaw that US, as a student town university, is facing is that the attention is too often focussed inwards. The bigger issues of the world such as poverty, disease and education are too often neglected while people debate relatively inconsequential issues. Inconsequential in the sense that the country is growing and developing while SU is clinging too tightly to the ideology of an elitist educational system. The university can get so much more from its students, and thus give more to the country, if it invites more controversial speakers to address its cosseted students in this bubble-like town.
Prof Karaan comments on whether the challenges they faced in the past were clear cut.
“The revolutions of the past and present are started by the youth”. He mentioned the unrest in North Africa as an example where persons between the ages twenty and forty are at the heart of the up risings. The “Agents of Social Change” discussions have also identified this trend in the Apartheid struggle of the past and the current student uprisings in England. “It is the people with a twenty year vision that facilitate change”. “People younger than twenty are too naive to challenge society and people older than forty are too comfortable with the status quo to do anything about it”.
Final words on leadership…
“Leaders are givers”. In order to encourage people to do good, one needs to constantly give. By giving of oneself everyday you run the risk of running empty. He recommends that you should take time to replenish your spirits every day, to ensure you have more to give in the challenges to come. Personally he does it through quiet meditation during which he churns over issues in his mind. One such issue is the approach that, “to get to the truth you cannot start with a fact”. A fact on its own is not strong enough to base the truth on. You need to consider the human spirit, as this is the strongest controlling factor in societal behaviour. By understanding and speaking to the human spirit, social change is guaranteed to follow.
Finally a leader needs to “take the moderate route”, always balancing “overt” activism with often unacknowledged “covert” actions. Good leaders differentiate between the urgent tasks and the important ones. A leader knows when key issues require action; “timing is very important”. You get two types of leaders, “born leaders and situational leaders”. Situational leaders will come from unexpected places to carry the baton the required distance. Born leaders are always there to live by example, especially during difficult times. “I am a born leader”.
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