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Next generation heroes


A STORY is told of a man named Rip Van Winkle; a kindly easy-going fellow living in a mountain village in the United States around the time of the American Revolutionary War.

Opinion: Thembe Khumalo

Thembe Khumalo
Thembe Khumalo

He is well-loved by all except for his long suffering wife, who nags him constantly about his lazy ways that have caused their farm to fall into disarray.

One day, he is walking in the mountain and is seduced by phantom creatures, who offer him their friendship and then seduce him with their liquor.

He falls asleep and wakes up to find that an election has just been held and people are asking who he voted for.

Clueless, he is bewildered because he recognises no one, and the sign that was up carrying a portrait of King George III now bears the name of the new leader, George Washington.

It turns out Van Winkle had slept for 20 years! And while he slept, the whole world had changed.

His story carries interesting lessons not just for Zimbabwe, but an entire world in which change is coming faster than we ever anticipated; and in which young people are figuring things out faster than we do.

This means that we have to change the way we view young people and their potential.

If you don’t believe me, just think about your own childhood.

When you had a toy that didn’t work, you took it to an adult, and the adult attempted to fix it for you.

Today, it is the adults who have the toys, and who depend on youngsters to understand and fix their toys when they are broken.

I recently installed an application on my phone and watched in awe as my 10-year-old navigated it within minutes.

“How did you know to do that?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “I just did!”

When it comes to technology, young people seem to have an intuitive advantage over the rest of us.

The millenials we brushed aside as spoilt brats are now real people.

They are grown-ups and they are leading families and start-ups.

They have incomes and they vote with their dollars, so any organisation selling anything needs to take them into account.

Oh, yes, and they also vote in elections.

One company that has seen the tangible positive results of taking young people seriously is Burberry.

When Angela Ahrendts took over the 150-year-old brand in 2006, it was struggling.

With a 2% growth in a sector that was growing at 13%, she quickly figured out that some drastic changes were required.

Taking into account the fact that 60% of the world’s population is under the age of 30, she figured out that the company’s future would be determined by the millennial market segment.

To match the target market, she began to employ younger people.

Today, Burberry’s workforce consists of 70% people under 30 and the company’s stock has risen 200%!

In Zimbabwe, it is estimated that people between 18 and 35 constitute 65% of the population.

This means they are the majority, although the poor economic conditions have meant that many of them are still being supported by their parents.

This does not, however, mean that they should be ignored.

Our country brand is only 37 years old, but it is as much in urgent need of renewal as Burberry was 11 years ago.

In some ways, it has, like Rip Van Winkle, been asleep for too long.

It is time for us to wake up to the new world order and embrace a new generation of heroes.

Founder and president of Growing Leaders, an international non-profit organisation created to develop emerging leaders, Time Elmore says that innovation trumps tenure any day, and he is right.

It is no longer enough to say I am in charge because I have been here the longest.

Yet we see a stubborn refusal to accept this in our companies, our churches and our politics.

Whichever side of the political divide you fall on, you will find you are being talked at primarily by people over the age of 60.

If you are one of the majority of Zimbabweans under the age of 30, you may find that you do not even speak the same language as many of your leaders.

It is time for the older generations to become consultants rather than commanders.

To swallow a helping of humble pie and say to the young people: “Things are not as they should be. What would you do differently?” and then to take those responses and actually do something with them.

It is not enough to acknowledge that we need a new generation of leaders; we must also empower them to perform heroic acts, and create the enabling environment for heroism to flourish.

Angela Ahrendts could not have accomplished what she did for Burberry with a board that was staid and afraid of change, and neither can any young person do that for our country.

A day will come when Heroes Day will include living, present-day heroes, as well as those who lost their lives in service to the country.

When that day comes, we had better be wide awake and ready, otherwise we will have a Rip Van Winkle moment and find ourselves lost.

Thembe Khumalo is a brand-builder, storyteller and social entrepreneur. Find out more on www.thembekhumalo.com or follow her social media accounts @thembekhumalo

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