Mal Fletcher
G20 Summit - A Potential Mandela Moment

When Nelson Mandela arrived on Robbin Island to begin his long prison sentence, he was taken to the limestone quarries where his fellow inmates spent their days in meaningless physical labour.

Realising that many of his co-prisoners had the education level of a primary school child, Mandela made one of his greatest pronouncements as a leader.

"We must turn this limestone pit into our university," he said.

Mandela knew that one of the core responsibilities of leadership, and one of its most powerful effects, is to inspire confidence in people -- especially in difficult times, when confidence seems hard to find.

There are parallels with the current recession.

The cornerstones of a modern economy are not found in metrics, corporate spreadsheets or government targets; they are found in human emotion, and particularly feelings of confidence.

You can digitize money, but you can't digitize human emotions. Statistics, somebody said, are merely human stories with the tears removed.

Confidence is the essential ingredient needed to produce the two foundations of a modern economy: personal creativity or productivity, followed by interpersonal exchange.

As the G20 leaders meet in London this week, it will be their responsibility to try to inspire confidence, not just in the global business marketplace, but in the world of community life generally.

This recession has destroyed much of the public's confidence in institutions, especially banks and other financial houses. They are seen -- in many cases, rightly so -- as having abused positions of trust, recklessly gambling with resources that didn't belong to them.

Yet an economy like ours is completely dependent on trust; on the belief that a commitment made will be a commitment kept.

Social beings that we are, it is difficult for us to trust faceless people with whom we have no meaningful contact. But this is a requirement of the new global economy. Without trust, we will be returned to a bygone age of trading coconuts with our immediate neighbours.

Right now, leadership is about providing a culture where trust becomes easier than mistrust. This, of course, will take time. For corporate and civic leaders, rebuilding people's willingness to trust will require that demand a certain generosity of spirit.

People can only trust when there is a degree of altruism in play. Customers and clients need to proof that companies have their best interests at heart and are concerned about much more than achieving bottom-line profits.

In a data-overloaded world, people don't look for more information; they want value-adding information; products and services which, in some way, help them to live with things they value, such as meaning, belonging, happiness and security. This hunger for value is boosted in financial downturns.

Leaders in business will need to take this on board, along with a long haul approach. Patience must become a watchword in corporate boardrooms, as well as government offices.

Interpersonal confidence has taken a battering, but it is self-confidence that has taken the biggest hit in this economic crisis. Recession always means more than the loss of pay packets or the failure of businesses.

With these sad events comes the loss of identity at a personal level, because work is an important part of the story we construct to describe who we are and why we matter.

Having lost a job, we might find another and yet still find ourselves struggling with self-doubt -- because reconstructing a personal story takes time.

Whilst this is a time of great struggle in parts of the business world, it is a time of wonderful opportunity for the world of community organisations, charities and the like. Money may be more difficult to come by, but not so the potential of recruiting volunteers.

People in search of a new personal story are looking for new causes to support, an opportunity to prove themselves capable and worthwhile. They're searching for a chance to boost flagging self-esteem in the service of the wider world.

Trust and confidence can take years to build yet they can be destroyed in a moment. For some people, recession has become their limestone pit. We need corporate, government and community leaders who can help them turn this quarry into their personal university, their place of self rediscovery and reinvention.

Copyright Mal Fletcher 2009

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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