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CASE STUDY: THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF DEVELOPING A GLOBAL MINDSET IN SOUTH AFRICA


TRANSKEI, SOUTH AFRICA - Luke Schmidt

Abstract

This case discusses a black South African man’s development of Global Mindset through his immersion into the city life of Johannesburg. The two worlds of this man are juxtaposed, revealing polar differences in life in his native Transkei compared to the bustle of Johannesburg. His challenges and, ultimately, successful adaptation to city life are described and discussed in terms of Global Mindset development.


The Case

The author of this case had a colleague who was a research academic at a university in Johannesburg, South Africa, who without even knowing it developed a Global Mindset. This person lived in two worlds: the rural world of his birthplace in Transkei (also in South Africa) and the urban area of Johannesburg.


Once a month, he flew from Johannesburg to Transkei to be with his extended

family. Every time he made the flight, he underwent a metamorphosis. As he dis-

embarked from the aircraft in Transkei, he would take off his workplace attire—his

suit and tie—and replace them with his village clothing—a loin cloth.


Once he had undergone this transformation, he would enter the village of his family. He would sit on the ground or squat comfortably amidst the elders of his tribe, knowing his

place amidst them as part of a community. In the centre of the gathering there was usually a wood fire, and the smoke would drift into his face in a way that did not

disturb or distract him.


Similarly, he would allow the flies to land on his face without having to flick them away or even notice them. He had an intrinsic respect for the order of authority in the tribe. He would talk only when it was his turn to speak and would respect the wisdom of the elders without even the hint of questioning them. Independence and even the idea of a self were just not part of the way of doing things.


On Sunday nights, he would hop on a flight to Johannesburg. By Monday

morning, he would be dressed in a suit, ready for work in the so-called developed

sector of the white economy. Here too he knew all the rules of the community,

and he would enact them in his everyday dealing with people. He lived out the

established patterns of authority. He knew how to argue his point at committee

meetings and knew the importance of doing so as an individual in this kind of

organisational setting to actualise his agenda. He knew the art of playing organi-

sational politics, how to form networks, and how to communicate well in his role

as a lecturer. He was also an extremely self-possessed and independent man.

It is tempting to say that the roles that he played came naturally and easily to

him.


But this would be incorrect. It was only after years of mastering the estrangement, pain, and bewilderment of grappling effectively with being a stranger in the world of the city that he began to master its ways. He moved as a young adult from the familiar and safe environment of Transkei to Johannesburg. During this transition, he was often alone and confused. All sorts of questions would pop up in his thoughts like, “Why are people in such a hurry in the city, and why are people so formal and unfriendly?” He even began to doubt himself and his ability to adapt to city life. He did not have a sense of belonging in the huge metropolis, and there was no embodied sense of the order to things that would give him a clear picture of what to do or how to be.


But he worked through the anxiety and uncertainty to slowly, but surely, adapt.

He did this through a process of constant questioning that allowed him to become

familiar with the ways of doing things in the city. This mastery should not be taken

for granted. For every person new to Johannesburg who did master the city, there

were hundreds who lost themselves to alcohol or other vices just to cope with the

alienation of being a stranger in a new land. My colleague’s understanding was hard-

won. Because of his own struggles, he became an adept teacher helping others to

learn to adapt to a new culture. He even did this for me and some of my peers.


On one occasion, we were doing research into tribal management practices,

and he invited some of us to his tribal home in Transkei. He laughed in a very

playful way at our bewilderment at not quite knowing how things got done and our

awkwardness at what to do with ourselves in the new and unfamiliar culture. His

laugh was not malicious.


It was, in fact, playful and generous because, being highly attuned to our discomfort, he recognised our discomfort and helped us find our places in the community. Not only did he make us feel comfortable, he also created possibilities for us to understand. This helped us to reduce the sense of strangeness we felt in an unfamiliar setting. He was a very effective translator for the ways of the two worlds. This is a hard thing to do, but he was motivated to help us because he knew that we had the good will to want to listen beyond our boundaries. Both sides recognised the mutual generosity of spirit required for understanding an unfamiliar way of doing things. As a leader, our colleague helped us to find a sense of place and perspective amidst our confusion and sense of feeling out of place.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS


1. Describe the two worlds that the research academic from Transkei inhabited.

2. What made it possible for him to move between these worlds?

3. What are the Global Mindset attributes that you can see in this case? Use examples to back up your case.

4. Name and discuss some of the challenges involved in developing a Global Mindset.

5. Based on this case, how would you distinguish Global Mindset from cross-cultural education?

6. What thoughts about your own experience emerge from reading this case?


TEACHING NOTES


1. Describe the two worlds that the research academic from Transkei inhabited.

The research academic was from a rural, native community where tradition

was paramount. This included traditional dress, an established hierarchy

with a deep respect for elders, and a prioritisation of community over self.


His acculturation in Johannesburg allowed him to work equally well in that

society where Western formal wear was the norm, society followed a different set of rules about order and hierarchy, and individual autonomy was prioritised over community. The pace of life between both was quite different, as was the degree of connection within the communities.


2. What made it possible for him to move between these worlds?

We see a man who is comfortable moving between two cultures and two

worlds. He was able to do this not through theoretical and abstract knowledge of the two cultures, but through an embodied knowledge of the two cultures. He knew his way around both without having to think about it, much like the art of riding a bicycle that becomes second nature over time.


So too his understanding was based on a felt knowledge of the two cultures. He was quite at home in both of them. This was because of his well-developed Global Mindset.


3. What are the Global Mindset attributes that you can see in this case? Use examples to back up your case.

This colleague mastered the art of being able to live in two worlds. This

involved more than just the ability to translate from one world to another;

it gave him a set of global competencies to use to navigate both worlds.


The following list highlights the Global Mindset attributes possessed and dis-

played by the research academic from Transkei:


• In the face of uncertainty, he developed a quest for adventure, which is an ability to have faith taking a leap to immersing himself in others’ ways of doing things.


• He developed the cosmopolitan outlook, which allowed him to not take his own worldview for granted when going into an unfamiliar situation.


• He developed an ability to adapt his own perspectives by listening to and exploring the views of others.


• He developed intercultural empathy to see other ways of doing things as legitimate and interesting alternatives, instead of reducing them to oddities.


• He developed an ability to appreciate and navigate uncertain situations.


• He learned to make decisions and take action in the face of the

uncertainty or discomfort. He did not learn about the strange

culture by thinking about it, but by immersing himself in it.


• He learned how to learn from mistakes that he made by modifying his actions and decisions appropriately.


• He developed a confidence in himself through his trial and error of navigating differences.


• He developed a sense of resilience to bounce back in the face of

cultural missteps.


• He developed an ability to dialogue across cultures.


• He developed an ability to speak in the language of others and to listen to them using their cultural framework. As he would say, a person’s world comes alive through the language they speak. To see a person’s worldview and thus work effectively with them is to be able to see things through their language.


• He learned how to enable other people to learn about cultures by guiding them in immersion experiences. This included a profound ability to listen and pick up on nonverbal cues. He was able to turn their anxiety into learning opportunities.


• He developed a sense of psychological flexibility. This was not only a tolerance, but also an actual enjoyment of the uncertainty and ambiguity in cross-cultural interactions.


4. Name and discuss some of the challenges involved in developing a Global

Mindset.

In this case, the research academic from Transkei faced extreme loneliness

and isolation while learning to navigate a new culture. Many others have

not fared as well and have turned to vices to cope with these challenges. His

adaptation required patience, persistence, keen observation, open-minded-

ness, and flexibility.


5. Based on this case, how would you distinguish Global Mindset from cross-cultural

education?

A big difference between cross-cultural interactions and having a Global

Mindset is that cross-cultural interactions often do not involve reciprocal

understanding. In our research excursion to Transkei, we were having a

cross-cultural experience because we did not understand his culture the

way he understood ours. We saw his culture through the lens of our own.


He had a Global Mindset that allowed him to fully understand and navi-

gate both worlds. He was a leader who was able to translate and interpret

between cultures. He helped us understand ethnic black culture, the way

of being in this culture, and the expectations and assumptions within the

society.


This is a challenge for many people from Western cultures who tend to take

their cultural knowledge as the standard by which Asian and African cultures want to be educated, without a complementary understanding of the Asian or African culture. In contrast, Asian and African people tend to have an appreciation of both their own way of doing things and Western ways of being, because they are generally exposed to both and have to learn both ways of being.


The colleague of the author was not only very helpful but also very adamant that we develop a reciprocal understanding of African tribal culture in its own terms. He cautioned us not to reduce it or redefine it in Western standards, as had been the custom of centuries of colonialism. This was not just about African pride; it was pragmatic. If we wanted to know our way about African culture, we needed to understand its ways of doing things.


So, too, if we want to understand Asian cultures and their effect on organisations and management, we need a more reciprocal understanding. This understanding allows us to know our way about and see into the culture in a way that we could not otherwise do through our own cultural lens.


The challenge to develop a more symmetrical understanding is especially important in view of the rise of China and the Asian century, where expecting the other to understand management practices in Western terms is not going to be good enough in the future.


6. What thoughts about your own experience emerge from reading this case?

Although it would be incorrect, a little knowledge about the autobiography of Nelson Mandela suggests that we are writing about Nelson Mandela here. In his journey into developing a Global Mindset, he too went through the alienation of living in between the familiarity of his homeland and the strangeness of urban life. In the face of extreme adversity, he was able to dwell in the anxiety and uncertainty of the unknown long enough to develop a mastery of the two worlds. This enabled him to dialogue between the two, being mindful of the vulnerabilities, values, and aspirations of the people of

both worlds. This helped him architect the rainbow nation of South Africa.


Furthermore, he was quite open to being transformed by the new way of life in the city, while preserving the identity of his heritage. And more than this, he was able to rise above personal threats to his identity to be able to listen to his enemy. While the path that we are talking about here is the one that was traversed by Mandela, the person in this case is an ordinary leader.


He may not stand out on any world stage, but he demonstrates that develop-

ing a Global Mindset is possible and creates extraordinary opportunities to

expand our own lives and those of others.


Dr Steven Segal, Ph.D.



















Steven Segal, Ph.D.



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