A few years ago I toyed with the idea of going to a coach. A short bout of illness had prompted me to re-evaluate how I wanted my future to develop. Getting the services of a coach seemed like a way to plan some new things ahead – or so I thought!
I looked around for someone whom I thought would fit the bill, without great success at first. Looking back, I realise why! What I had been looking for in a coach was not for someone to help me rethink some things. What I really wanted, without admitting it to myself, was someone to do it for me – someone to present me with the future, to do the work that I didn’t feel up to doing at that time.
Recently I listened to someone describe the role of a coach like this – it is to help a client find the resources within themselves to solve a problem or to create something new. I realised that what I had been looking for all those years ago was someone to rescue me rather than to help me find the where withal within myself to create something different.
Had I found what I was initially looking for it would certainly have been easier in the short-term, but not to my ultimate benefit. Happily, the situation was brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
A few weeks ago Senator George Mitchell visited Belfast again. His visit was a reminder of the extraordinary levels of help we have received in Northern Ireland. We have had the skills of the most talented and the attention of the most powerful as we try to make our painful journey to peace. Senator Mitchell’s visit prompted talk of who would facilitate our political leaders in negotiations after the elections.
Globally we are living in extraordinary times. One of the things we are discovering is that there is not an inexhaustible supply of international attention or energy available to be devoted to our search for lasting peace. We are glad for the attention and help we have received but recognise others have their own issues to face and future to create.
A facilitator has a job to do. It is to help our leaders to find the resources within themselves to do what they need to do. Our leaders have their own job to do. One part of that is obvious.
It is to solve immediate problems. Yet it is so much more than that. It is to create something new – a way of finding reconciliation and a better future.
Gaining political power is not for the fainthearted. Neither is the exercise of it. It is hard because our road to reconciliation means dealing with the past, present and the future.
Political leadership is something most of us have an opinion about, but a task few would envy. Yet, to paraphrase one leadership expert, “We need more in leaders than just the ability to gather a following.”
Seeking help for the task is more than reasonable.
Yet, whatever help our political leaders seek, it should not now be for someone to rescue them – to do it for them.
As with the job of a coach it is help for them to find, within themselves, the resources they need to make the hard decisions. Upon such does our future depend. It was ever thus.
“One of the roles of leadership is to tell your own people about the way things really are on the ground”. So said the cofounder of a multi million-dollar international company.
Although talking exclusively about business his words could just as easily apply to politics in our own community. Over the years leadership on all sides has failed to tell its own people about the way things really are. It helps explain some of the political paralysis and perpetual crisis with which we choose to live.
All of this has a human cost. Vast amounts of political energy used when the challenges of recession, health or education are knocking at the door. Your own people at times left disorientated and confused. The leaving of a vacuum that fuels frustration. Avoiding rather than dealing with some of the deepest underlying issues of our conflict.
So, what is it that political leadership does not speak to its own people? Ironically it is something known by almost everyone. It is no secret yet we pretend that we do not know it. The unspoken truth is different for each part of our community.
What has unionism needed to be told? Simply that for any sort of future there would have to be political accommodation and a sharing of power. Not just with political opponents, but with sworn enemies.
For the republican community it was this. After so many lost lives, even amongst its own people, the reality is that republicanism was not achieving what it tried to do by armed conflict over so many years. Most people know and accept these realities yet they always remain unspoken. All sides are tempted to act, in their politics and more especially in their public dealing with one another, as though these things were not the case.
There is always a temptation for leadership to tell their people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.
We are well used to political crises in Northern Ireland. Something peculiar is now happening. It is weariness, even exhaustion, amongst voters. It is more than just a sense that we have been here before, or that politics must be about more than perpetual crisis. Something has broken in people. People are worried for their livelihoods, the education of their children and health services.
Perpetual political crisis with all the human consequences is no longer acceptable when there is so much else for the rest of us with which to deal.
Increasingly people believe more is going on than the struggle to reach agreement over this or that, no matter how big or small the issue.
They begin to feel that leadership on all sides is hamstrung, looking over their backs, boxed in as a result of the things left unspoken to their own people over years. More and more people wonder if this lurks behind whatever the crisis of the moment happens to be. They also sense that what flows from it is a logjam of decision making – decisions not just about issues that profoundly affect our everyday life, but also what sort of society we are choosing to become.
There is a truth that now needs to be. It is that the only possible future for our community is not some sort of sullen hatred or endless competition between power-blocks. It to find a process of reconciliation. The challenge is to find a way whereby people who have been sworn enemies and injured one another deeply can find a new way of living together.
Difficult as it may be to contemplate the challenge, it is to find a reconciled future.
It is brave political leadership that tells its own people about how things really are. Yet that it is the role of a leader. Leadership is not about those who lead. It is about the people who are being led and about meeting their needs. It is about having a vision of the future that is good not only for your own people but also your neighbours.
The words of Ronald Heifetz say it all – “In a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decisions, strength and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going …. in short, someone who can make hard problems simple”. This place is an impossible burden on leaders, whether self-inflicted or otherwise.
Heifetz identifies an alternative. “We should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that require us to learn new ways”. That is leadership, and the urgency attaching to the point where we have arrived suggests this is needed now.
Those who lead us must decide what sort of leaders they will be. Those of us who are led must decide what sort of leadership we honestly want – those who tell us what we want to hear or those who tell us what we need to hear.
Responsibility for our future then rests where it has always been – not only with those who lead us but also with us who are led.
By: Earl Storey ‘Protestantism: A Journey in Self-Belief’ Project
A new book entitled Rebel Prods: The Forgotten Story of Protestant Radical Nationalists and the 1916 Rising by the late Dr Valerie Jones, is to be to be launched by the former Archbishop of Dublin, The Rt Revd Walton Empey, at the Treasury, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Monday 21 November 2016 at 6.30pm.
The book, brought to fruition by Dr Valerie Jones’s daughter, Dr Heather Jones, an Associate Professor in History at the London School of Economics, is published by Ashfield Press and has been supported by the Church of Ireland’s Historical Centenaries Working Group as one of its several contributions to marking the centenaries of 1916 during this calendar year.
The outgoing Chairman on the Historical Centenaries Working Group, the Rt Revd John McDowell, says, ‘One of the objectives of more or less everyone who has been involved in the Decade of Centenaries has been to explore the complexity of Irish History during this crucial period. Many people are aware of the involvement of well known, and often well connected, Irish Protestants in radical politics during the revolutionary period. However, there were others whose participation on the republican side are much less well known, or barely known at all but whose stories deserve to be told and reflected upon.
‘In her research the late Dr Valerie Jones devoted her prodigious energy to uncovering and re–telling their stories which have now been brought to publication by her daughter Dr Heather Jones. This book fills a gap in the scholarship of that period and should also be of interest to a much wider readership who, once again, history will surprise.’