Reflections on the alchemy of everyday peacebuilders by Sarah Owusu (Peace Day, 21 September 2016)

The 21st of September is The International day of Peace – what grand and idealistic words. Some might even say naïve. What good is one day of Peace in the face of global conflict, war and crime? Can people ever be truly peaceful? And what does it even mean to live peacefully?

I have been reflecting on these questions for a long time, and in 2013 I had the honour of working with Peace One Day – the organisation that ensured that Peace Day became a UN recognised day of global unity and intercultural cooperation, and whose objective is to institutionalise the day as one of taking action around the question: who will you make peace with?

Personally, this question has come up for me again recently as I was faced with my own visceral anger. It was a few months back when a close friend spoke to me about how the relationship she was in, one that had been escalating for some time, had reached a point where she could no longer stay. I sat up with her late, listening to her talk about the latest and most vicious interaction that they had and welling up at the sight of the bruises on her chest and arms.

Listening to her story, I was frustrated and angry at how little I felt able to do – and the anger stayed with me. I see anger as a great tool to help you identify your boundaries, your hard lines, your convictions – and for me, here I was faced with my own anger, a clear pointer towards something that I did not want to see in the world. Experiencing anger in this way, allowed me to activate the transformative power behind the anger – so I was left with another question: what alchemy can I make with this feeling?

It is with this energy, that I am convening a dialogue on Peace Day this year for a group of women to discuss gender based violence, it’s impacts and the healing and action that we can take to counteract it. And crucially, we will be using the space to come up with a simple tool for spotting the indicators of manipulative and abusive relationships.

I do not think that the idea of one day of Peace is naive, and I do not question the impact of this day. Behavioural change and change of mind starts with awareness, conversations and insight. Peace One Day are supported by McKinsey who measure the impact of Peace Day – they estimate that of the 709 million people aware of Peace Day in 2015, 13 million of those act more peacefully on the day (Peace One Day 2015 Report).

Social movements theory also outlines the power of distributed action and the concept of “Big Task, Small Ask” (Wilde, 2016) as the way to most impact. The latter points to the fact that when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, as many social changes appear, it needs to be broken down into smaller manageable tasks that individuals can own and implement.

I believe that these examples of everyday peacebuilding and leadership can make a real difference. Globally, one in three women have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime (World Health Organisation); a key way to prevent this is through awareness and catching potentially violent behaviours before they begin. In the We Will Lead Africa volume of everyday African leadership that I am editing (with my co-editors, Yabome and Judith), we include a powerful story by Fatou Wurie who implores us to support, listen to and take seriously the many survivor stories of women and girls who have faced sexual and violent abuse.

There are many people doing extraordinary things every day to counteract violence and build peace – I will be shining a spotlight on that on Peace Day. Peace Day is about doing something, taking action – big or small – from exactly where you are standing. So, Peace to you, and who will you make peace with?

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– Peace One Day 2015 Report can be found here.

– World Health Organisation Fact Sheet on Violence against women reviewed in 2016 can be found here.

– Joanna Wilde (2016), The Social Psychology of Organizations: Diagnosing Toxicity and Intervening in the Workplace. London: Routledge.

– Fatou Wurie (2013), Not Just Another Gender-based Violence Statistic. Online for Huffington Post here.

Judith’s Story: Superheroes

I watched Captain America: Civil War recently. If you have not already watched it, don’t worry no spoilers follow. However, it is common knowledge that it features one of Marvel’s few African Superheroes, the aptly named Black Panther from the fictional land of Wakanda. Before watching my brother had warned me that I may need a dose of patience as Hollywood’s generic “African” accent is used liberally. You know the accent I mean, the one that seems to occur in all Hollywood movies to represent Black Africans south of the Sahara, with the possible exception of South Africa. Despite this, I enjoyed the movie enormously (no points here for guessing that Marvel comics featured in my childhood and I remember them with great fondness), and a large part of this enjoyment was linked to the presence of T’Challa – regal, Wakandan, purposeful, and above all relatable. Chatting with my brother later, I told him he was fortunate I had not watched the movie with him in Houston as it was quite possible I would have yelled out “Igbo Kwenu!!”* at every move the Black Panther made.

I am British, but before that I am Nigerian; Igbo if you know the country beyond the name; from Imo State if the geography is familiar. This has always been true for me, but I have become progressively more African. I will explain what I mean, I grew up as a diplomat’s child. Like my siblings, I was born in the UK, and left as a toddler to then go on to live in Austria, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Indonesia and by the time I graduated from high school in Japan I had my global citizen game down. Subsequent visits to Asian, European and Nigerian cities would evoke a sense of “home”.

I consider myself a unique blend of experiences that have culminated in an appetite for and desire to gain and promote knowledge about leadership in a manner that facilitates a diversity conscious approach to leadership and management development in global organisations. I was keen to pursue research in partial realisation of my dream of contributing to the growth and development of a ‘glocal’ approach to individual wellbeing in the workplace. It’s a bit of a stretch but bear with me here – I have been fortunate to interact with various international organisations (NGOs, corporates etc) that do work in African countries, too often I would encounter the same story ‘it is so difficult to work in Africa’, ‘we are not able to develop leadership talent there’, ‘the culture/ways of working/ societal norms do not promote the work ethics we require’…and the list goes on. I believe that there must be a way of working – in this case distilled down to leadership principles or a framework – that will resonate with people in Africa, be accessible via their own preferences or inclinations, and lead to impactful effective leadership and management. A style of leadership that does not necessarily follow Western paradigms, but will nevertheless deliver the results showcased through impact on the continent. A type of leadership that we must tell stories of.

It has meant that I have spent the last 3 years doing research on leadership in West Africa for a doctorate. It has meant that 6 years ago I developed a leadership coaching model based on the Oriki of the Yoruba people. It has meant that my company would be named Ìmísí, to breathe life into, to inspire…and that my work in some way now always connects me to this belief.

“Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your Blackness.” – these were Barack Obama’s words at Howard University’s 2016 Commencement to which I add “Be confident in your identity. Be confident in your story….and please share it with us.”

There is just one day left, please share your story today!

*“Igbo kwenu” most literally means, “We the Ibo people stand together in agreement and collective will.” It is both a greeting and a call to attention for the Ibo people.

Sarah’s Story: the power of words, stories and voice

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein (Philosopher), from his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

I’ve always liked words – words like:

Connect – from the Latin con and nectere, meaning to bind together.

Inspire – from the Latin inspirare, breathe or to blow into; conjuring up the images of something divine that is able to fill us up with an idea, or truth, with just a breath.

Transcend – from the Latin transcendere, which is made up of the word trans meaning across, and scandere, to climb. Upwards, and beyond.

In story telling, life or ‘vividness springs from the names of things’ (McKee 1997: 395); searching for and using the right words for things is an art, and I am always awestruck by the concept of communication. I formulate and idea in my mind, wrap it in words that I send to you (written, virtual, via vocal chord and eardrum vibrations) and that you then decipher into images in your own mind…the better the words, the more accurate the communication. What magic!

In Speech Acts (Searle, 1969) we can see the power and authority that some words hold: like declarations. A declaration of peace, or of war, the declaration of human rights … just by virtue of being voiced, they can change the trajectory of lives. Speech really can do something – it can put things into action.

My passion for words and for story telling has led me into a career centred on dialogue and conversations. Working in organisations, brokering and facilitating conversations and helping teams make meaning of their strategy and vision; coaching individuals from a variety of backgrounds, industries and cultures; I have learnt that narrative and story telling is a powerful tool for transformation, connection with others and purpose-filled action.

We shape our identities, our sense of self and sense of belonging through stories – as I let my mind wonder, I think about the narratives that I am a part of, the stories I hold onto about myself and others. Some are accurate, some are not – some are empowering, others may be harmful.

I am energised and inspired by the change and impact that I see all over the African countries that I work, travel and live in. I believe that the We Will Lead Africa volume will amplify this. By creating a platform for stories of African everyday leadership to be heard – stories that haven’t yet had the space and attention that they deserve – we are redefining what we see for the future of the continent and it’s people, and we are spreading stories that will fill others with hope and inspiration to play an active part in bringing their aspirations to life.

Part of moving forward, is to imagine the Africa that we want for the future. We Will Lead Africa is an opportunity to come together to take a close look at all our stories, to uncover those that are most powerful, and importantly, to be the authors of our own stories. ‘As we begin to embody our own genuine expression, we find our voice has magic in it … Speaking our voice can transform our circumstances.’ (Isaacs, 1999: 160). As we speak, as our stories are broadcast, we will see that we are not only expressing thoughts, but that we are bringing into being a world – as we speak, we begin to create a new reality.

And so I leave you, with some questions about your stories: What stories sustain and uplift your sense of self, and connect you to others? What stories would you tell to inspire action from others around you? What could move us beyond where we are now, enable us to transcend the stories that hold us back, and bring into being those that propel us forward?

Send us your stories of everyday leadership for the We Will Lead Africa volume.

Submit yours by 6th June 2016 – details at:


Isaacs, W. (1999) Dialogue and the art of thinking together: a pioneering approach to communicating in business and in life. New York: Random House

McKee, R. (1997) Story: substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting. New York, US: Harper-Collins Publishers

Searle, J.R. (1969) Speech Acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Yabome’s story: Why We. Will. Lead. Africa

I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” [Philosopher Alasdair McIntryre]…The questions “What am I to do?” and “Of what story am I a part?” capture the essence of leadership—to take action, which may exceed one’s authority, in the face of doubt. However, these questions miss the essence of leadership because they focus on the individual. Leaders ask and answer, “What are we to do?” Effective leadership asks implicitly or explicitly, “Of what story are we a part?”

Richard Couto, 2004, Encyclopedia of leadership

Richard Couto’s words struck a chord with me. On the day I first read these words I was researching and writing a conference paper on African Leadership Narratives. When the call for abstract submissions for the said conference had floated into my inbox, I’d read it with some interest and then filed it to come back to. I promptly forgot about it and when I recalled that I might have been interested in making a submission, I had missed the deadline. Suddenly, I realized I really, actually, wanted to submit an abstract. It was the 3rd bi-annual Kwame Nkrumah Conference, which happened to be taking place in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, just about an hour from where I live. There was a long list of topics for possible submissions centred in and around issues of African development, including our resource abundance and development scarcity, the colonial history, the state of pan-Africanism, the question of our failed leadership, roles of the Diasporas, Brain Drain and Gain …This list felt like every dinner conversation, every newscast and every “why Africa’s situation is hopeless” interaction I’d been in. It was the necessary, guttural, painfully raw story, documenting why we, Africa and Africans, are in the more difficult situations we find ourselves today. It is a Lament Narrative, needed to grieve losses and facilitate healing. But Lament Narratives to the exclusive of hope and action stifles and suffocates progress and inadvertently reinforcing a narrative that we are powerless against the ocean of despair we face, filled with all these strenuous factors. We were telling and retelling the story we are a part of without asking: What are we to do? As I looked at the list I realized I had something to say and contribute. It was not on the list and I was late, but I took a chance and sent in my abstract for a paper and presentation titled African Leadership: Now and for the Future, to be in the Conference Track: African development: Resource curse or leadership curse?

This conference submission was one event in the storyline that has brought me to We Will Lead Africa. At the time I’d been carrying the vague uneasiness that precedes the possibility for change, the choice to just do something different but I was not sure what my unease was about and what the something I needed to do was. I had studied and worked in the field of leadership and organization development/change for a while and thoroughly enjoyed my work but craved more intellectual stimulus. To gain that, I went back to graduate school fully intending to do a ‘usual’ leadership and organization development doctorate dissertation and degree. The kink in my plan was going to a school renowned for its commitment to social justice and change and for preparing passionate scholar-practitioners to not only lead organizational change and development but lead and make social impact using our systems change skillsets (What was thinking?!). So in following my passion for how to shift African Development and immigrant/refugee narratives, I ended up researching transformational African leaders, living and working in the UK, US and Canada, while being world changers in their communities locally and/or back in their African ‘homes.’ This, in spite of every real and stereotypical hardship that came with the significant war traumas they had experienced in Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo-Brazzavile and Ethiopia. These, my sheros and heros were everyday leaders, a community worker, a student, a software engineer, an environmental specialist etc., contributing whatever skillsets they had, with a whole dose of passion, and making significant changes in narratives that seemed otherwise bleak. These, were answering the questions for themselves: What are we to do? What part can I play? They were writing new narratives of leadership in and for Africa that are hard to find at the dinner table, on newscasts or on that conference abstract list. I wanted to share African leadership narratives like theirs – transformational, yet marginalized. Because I also know from my leadership and systems change scholarship and work that albeit a slow process, shifting narratives, will shift beliefs, will shift individual and collective action and will lead to change and transformation…and I KNOW this is already true across the African continent. I know this, because by the end of researching and writing that conference paper, and subsequent research and work I’ve done, it is clear that the alternative narrative of everyday leaders making a difference is already happening.

My research showed that where this leadership change is happening, it’s based on

We – Collective accountable leaders, taking unified action.

Will – The leadership WILL, grit and courage to do something, anything, now and for the future i.e. action-oriented and aspirational leadership.

Lead – Everyday leaders, motivated by collective service, in every sector, including emerging leaders from marginalized groups.

Africa – A focus on a prosperous continent, where divides are bridged and leaders work across boundaries and borders to achieve a broader success.

And for those of you thinking it, yes, these rumblings, these isolated narratives feel like drops in the vast oceans of our needs right now. But that is exactly why we must hear them some more, share them some more and disrupt the status quo narratives some more. Remember that saying? Little drops of water, make a mighty ocean. We Will Lead Africa is one way to start collecting the drops, to build networks, to share ideas and to further precipitate the en-mass leadership change already happening for Africa.

For me, in the ongoing storyline of my life – in which I attempt to practice what I preach – this work, this space, this place, is also about being true to the leadership and change work I teach and do every day. It is about taking action to do my part in the WE. Confession – the gremlin on my shoulder often says, but what are you actually doing? What difference will telling a bunch of stories make? After I lick my self-deprecating wounds, I say back to the gremlin: Stories matter. Our collective story matters. And if all we accomplish with We Will Lead Africa is unifying African Leadership narratives of hope and change and transformation that inspire more collective action, I/we’d have done something! Inaction is no longer a choice simply because mine isn’t to build something, or invest in something. In the words of one of my favorite leadership writers Parker Palmer,

Everyone who draws breath “takes the lead” many times a day. We lead with actions that range from a smile to a frown; with words that range from blessings to curse; with decisions that range from faithful to fearful…when I resist thinking of myself as a leader, it is neither because of the modesty nor a clear-eyed look at the reality of my life…I am responsible for my impact on the world whether I acknowledge it or not.

Parker Palmer

So what does it take to qualify as a leader? Being human and being here. As long as I am here, doing whatever I am doing, I am leading, for better or for worse. And, if I may say so, so are you.

Spread the word, Share/encourage others toshare stories of work making a difference in/for Africa