When it comes to leadership, the ability to listen is what often makes good leaders great ones. Nelson Mandela had this quality. The masterful ability to listen, even when words were painful, ignorant, confronting, or aggressive.

Words: Michalya Schonwald Moss

When Mandela died in 2013, together with throngs of mourners, we made our way to his Johannesburg home in Houghton, a few blocks from my own. Drawn like a magnet, I remember the feeling of being embraced by the crowd, and of belonging.

People were dancing, crying, singing, writing notes, and decorating the stones in bright colours from the plant beds on the sidewalk.

In the centre of the road there was a young, white South African man who was addressing the mourners in Zulu. The crowd was loving what he was saying, moving their bodies with his words.  I, being American, of course couldn’t understand these words.  Yet I listened and heard. He was letting the audience speak through him, giving a voice to our unspoken emotions, our grief, and our pride.

Through decades of experience, and again now in this in these ‘post’ Covid-19 times of working in the field of humanitarian aid and development, I have learned that listening is an essential point of entry to build trust, create local partnerships and gain community buy-in.

Listening isn’t given as much attention in leadership training courses as public speaking is, yet when a leader grasps the enormity of the power to listen, she has the ability to create new possibilities and transform old paradigms together with her community.

 Although listening is the silent partner in communication, it should not be taken for granted.

As the implementing partner on the ground in the ‘Plot 89’ township in Gauteng, our team of volunteers at Cadena South Africa are trained on how to listen when they engage with our beneficiaries.

They go door to door, in the spirit of our ethos of hand-in-hand delivery, to assess the health and hygiene situation in communities where pit-toilets are the only option. Our engagement strategy is to not assume we know what is needed, but to gain as much information as possible from the ground.  To meet the needs of the community and co-create early adoption of our interventions for sustainable impact.

In our data-gathering processes, we are curious, culturally sensitive and kind. We ensure to cultivate a human connection with community members, allowing for the creation of an empathetic team that shares the same vision.

By working to combat the pit-toilet crisis in South Africa, through educational workshops and distributing an innovative sanitation product that neutralizes solid waste, eliminates flies and odours with extraordinary levels of success; we feel proud that we have helped our beneficiaries regain their human dignity and improve their quality of life.

In honour of Mandela Day, please join Cadena South Africa in our pledge – to listen before leading when looking for solutions.

 This lesson can be applied to all areas of our lives: In our personal and work relationships, with our children and especially with ourselves. To quote the great Madiba: “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” 

Originally from the United States, Michalya Schonwald Moss is the Director of Global Impact and Development for Cadena, an international humanitarian aid and disaster relief organization, guided by the principles of Tikkun Olam. Michalya has been living in South Africa since 2009.

Michalya is also both a Board Member and Network Member of Jewish Social Justice NGO, ‘Mensch’. www.mensch.org.za

To read more about her work Click HERE

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