Wednesday 9 December 2020

Valuing the wisdom of elders

In today’s disrupted times, “eldering” is a concept that countries – and companies – need to embrace
By Pratap Nambiar, Published The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2020

Almost 40 years ago, I was heading a fishnet manufacturing factory in Nigeria and just could not compete with lower-priced imports. A village elder saw my plight and promised to provide me with insight into the exact size of fish in the surrounding waters each week.

From that moment on, each week, I was able to match the mesh size of my nets with the size of the fish in the water. Result - my nets simply caught more fish.

I quickly designed a unique label, and within a few months fishermen from far and wide would come carrying my label looking for the nets that had special magic to catch more fish. The wisdom of the village elder had saved our company from potential closure.

What is 'eldering'?

Being an elder means a human being who is recognised by the community in which he lives as having some wisdom to offer on a continuing basis which is perceived to be of value.

It is not a function of age. Getting older does not entitle us to become elders. The most critical aspect is the relationship of the elder with the community and the ability to recognise the challenges of the times.

Aborigines of Australia or the Native Americans of the United States have been practising this art for a very long time. Asian cultures, too, have tapped the wisdom of elders.

The Eldering Institute in the US refers to "eldering" as "wisdom in action". The phrase suggests that if we traffic in our experience and the knowledge we have accrued without being in action or without having the capacity to inspire action in others, then our "wisdom" is little more than comforting and recounting of meaningless memories.

When the action stops, we become spectators and begin the process of detachment and inevitable decline. Eldering therefore represents the idea that even as we get older we can continue to improve. This is so long as we continue to be of service, and do not lose the ability to create and sustain relationships with the community we live in.

True elders are change-makers, who can lead by example, creating positive social change and inspiring others to do the same.

Eldering is a vision for growing older. It is an opportunity to live the rest of one's retired or not-retired life in a richer and more rewarding way as a life of contribution.

Of course, a great deal of what can be achieved depends on the ability to engage in conversations that will allow the elder to assess the community's needs and dilemmas and share his wisdom to make a positive difference.

Countries and companies

Elderhood is born out of a culture and a way of life, whether it is a country or an organisation.

It is not something that you can enforce. It has to be a calling, an attitude, a state of mind that allows eldering as a concept to become a tradition built around the telling of stories that are relevant and teach valuable life lessons.

In Singapore, we have seen the creation of the senior minister role where a wise and experienced leader continues to contribute and share critical milestones and defining moments of history experienced that had an impact on decision-making.

Many years ago, tycoon Richard Branson and rock star Peter Gabriel took their idea of eldering to Mr Nelson Mandela, who on his 89th birthday in 2007, founded "The Elders", an independent group of global leaders working together towards peace, justice and human rights.

Today, the chair is Mrs Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland, and her deputy is Mr Ban Ki-moon, the former United Nations secretary-general. There are several other leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mr Jimmy Carter, Ms Hina Jilani, Ms Ela Bhatt and Mr Kofi Annan, who continue to play an important role.

These global leaders are committed to working with local and indigenous knowledge; to listening and bringing together antagonists and protagonists; and to working with anyone who is motivated to resolve a problem.

They can help foster and introduce innovative ideas and little-known solutions to connect those who have real practical needs with those who have something to give.

A need in Singapore

I can see the opportunity in Singapore now where there is a strong need for elders to step in and address the rather contentious issue of the growing number of foreigners in our midst.

They have the wisdom to appreciate the needs of a small country such as ours, punching way above its weight in the global markets, to keep growing and sustaining its development and harmonious lifestyle in all segments of the population.

Listening to two different, apparently conflicting perspectives, and reconciling them through the creation of a middle path, needs the spiritual maturity and trust of the elders who have so much to offer.

Canadian author Stephen Jenkinson, of Come Of Age: The Case For Elderhood In A Time Of Trouble, believes that while humans are living longer than ever before, they have lost the leadership and wisdom of elders. In a "working" culture, everyone alive would be an "elder in training" whose character developed not unlike a fine wine, he says.

As our population ages, there is a strong case to ensure that everybody understands the subtle difference between getting old and becoming an elder. Elderhood is a function rather than an identity, it is not something you earn because you have become a grandparent.

Intuitively, as a leadership transformation coach for the last 12 years working with chief executives, I have been trying to recognise the presence of potential elders.

Leaders, particularly the young ones living in a world that is constantly changing and becoming more complex, need to find ways to get centred and grounded, willing to experiment and explore, becoming comfortable with not having answers and making mistakes from which to learn. Elders can help.

Today we are in the midst of catastrophic change. We know it requires something more than typically throwing technical solutions to deal with adaptive change. Organisations, too, need to create a culture where it becomes possible to identify and recognise the elders in their midst, not based on age and title, but the wisdom and responsiveness to the changing times.

Recognising and identifying elders is a difficult task because there are no personality tests that can be taken to throw out a score for selection. Mr Jenkinson says that it is the times that will dictate what elderhood means right now, and this is different for each country and company.

Elderhood is a cultural function dictated by the enlightened spiritual maturity of leaders, who have an evolved mind that can remain present to what is, rather than chasing what should be.

This involves: Serving freely as a channel, rather than trying to stay in control; respecting the mystery, rather than seeking certainty; developing an appetite for, and respecting once again, the lost tradition of elderhood to help reconcile the challenges of dualities; sharing the best of who we are; and having purposeful conversations that matter. This will make our journey so much more rewarding.

Pratap Nambiar is the founder of Singapore-based Thought Perfect, coaching CEOs to transform themselves for more effective leadership.

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