I had the opportunity to study social change and multiculturalism in South Africa for a three-month period during my junior year at Vassar College. It was my first experience of an African country, a place where I was in the majority and a place where I was assumed to be indigenous. By virtue of the program structure, we, a group of American college students, were granted access that most South Africans could only imagine — the chance to visit and live in the homes of black South Africans and white Afrikaners. Shuttling between these worlds of urban townships and wine country, reminded me of the privilege afforded to me by my otherness, a privilege I was not accustomed to back at home where I was from a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
Here between Langa and Stellenbosch, I learned like millions throughout the world and in South Africa to adore the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As we mourn his death, his indelible legacy lives on and serves as a testament to what it means to lead with compassion. I offer these lessons that I’ve learned from a man who has been described as a moral compass and the soul of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Even during the most difficult times we can find reasons for joy — If you’ve ever heard Desmond Tutu’s laugh, you’d know it was one of a kind, but also one that often accompanied his reflections on life, justice and the persistent good that he believed exists in the world. Sprinkled throughout his insightful even sacred musings, you’d find he’d often offer and find a reason to laugh even in the face of the seemingly insurmountable. Without question joy kept him youthful and all the more resolute in his commitment to fighting for and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden. He once said, “We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew.” His joy-perspective is one that offers leaders around the globe, especially during this time of increased uncertainty, an avenue toward greater resilience. It is the path and mark of joy that I believe was one of Mr. Tutu’s greatest gifts to humanity.
Silence in the face of injustice is a sin — With a deep commitment to his Christian faith, Mr. Tutu lived the truth that faith without works and words that call out injustice is no faith at all. Whether fighting for economic rights, the environment, or for any marginalized group of society, Mr. Tutu recognized that each person’s voice and contributions to the call for justice mattered. In his own words, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Mr. Tutu understood leadership was a call to speak out especially when it is inconvenient to do so because silence is not a neutral position; it only reifies injustice and moral cowardliness.
The burden for which you are called may bring you to tears — As a Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there is video footage of Mr. Tutu weeping while listening to a black South African man describe his experiences living under apartheid. He is so moved by the testimony he crouches forward, where his face is hidden from view, and is consoled by someone sitting next to him. Like it was said of Jesus, he wept. As Mr. Tutu’s model demonstrates, weeping is evidence that you understand the burden associated with your call. Additionally, his tears were reminders that one’s position as a leader need not make one less removed from compassion.
Perhaps his unwavering commitment to servant leadership, justice, joy and the celebration of what it means to be truly human were best evidenced through his tears. In fact, visible and visceral compassion remind us that leaders are human too. They grieve and experience feeling overwhelmed by what seems inconceivable and as we have learned yet again this week, their time here is limited. Like mine. Like ours.
Mr. Tutu’s life reflected a brilliance of humanity I can only aspire to emulate. May his life and legacy inspire you as well.