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Without a rulebook, what now?



We are in the midst of a conflagration, with no rule book or way out. No quick fixes or messaging will get us through.

What has erupted in the US with the death of George Floyd and ignited around the world cannot be unheard or unresponded to.

By Cathy Burke

How we typically try to deal with things that are uncomfortable is to turn away, feel bad, pretend it’s not happening, indulge in ‘whataboutery’ (obfuscating the issue by raising a different problem), or clutch our pearls in horror. This won’t do.

Real leadership is required from us all. And I mean true leadership – not posturing, or hand wringing or turning away. At the heart of being a leader is responsibility. I learned a great definition on this from The Hunger Project founder Joan Holmes. In 1993, celebrating the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger she said:

“The key to leadership is responsibility. A leader must say to him or herself that, “even though I have inherited this problem – a problem that I did not cause – this problem is now mine. With your participation, I will solve it.”

Oppression and racism is institutionalised and entrenched into all facets of life. We are all responsible for its perpetuation – and for its dismantling. That’s the sort of leadership I’m talking about. This is what is required of us now.

What we are being confronted with right now is a righteous reckoning. The bill has been presented and payment is long overdue.

A reckoning is part of life. Everything must be accounted for in some way. An orchard not watered will harvest bitter fruit. A body not exercised will harvest a difficult ageing. Human beings who are systematically subjugated, marginalised, murdered and enslaved require an accounting for this. That reckoning is here.

Doing nothing is not an option. We need to rethink what ‘doing’ looks like in this context. It doesn’t only have outward momentum, springing into action. For those of us privileged in any way, ‘doing’ needs to be grounded in ongoing, uncomfortable work – on and in ourselves, and in our societies. In Australia as a colonised country, de-colonising our mindsets, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours is part of the work required of us.

I don’t have the answers, but I take responsibility to constantly educate myself. That is on me. I am inquiring into what I can do that is genuine and impactful. I notice when jumping on a bandwagon feels easier than actually doing the work. How superficial can’t cut it. There’s no to-do list out of this – we each have to find what we need – and be responsible for finding it. For me, I’m following Black writers and commentators. I’m listening deeply to Black friends. I am observing and challenging my own internalised racism with wide eyes, open heart, clear mind – and compassion.

Poetry has always shown me a new world, and allowed me to soften into it.
I want to finish up this week’s offering with a poem I love – ‘won’t you celebrate with me’ by African American poet Lucille Clifton.

won’t you celebrate with me

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.


About Cathy Burke
Cathy Burke helps organisations find and unleash the leadership hidden in their people. Through keynote speaking and leadership programs, I inspire new possibilities for us to lead and live differently.

Pop me an email to find out about my programs for organisations worldwide.

I’ve been a CEO, and worked globally to help end hunger. I understand change, transformation, and what is required from us as humans to meet the demands we face with grace and power.

I’m also a lounge room dancer, a lover of dark chocolate, and the author of Unlikely Leaders: Lessons in Leadership from the Village Classroom


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