“Above all else … Understand Thyself”

(~5 minute read.)

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Today’s guest blogger is David Henderson.  
David is an energetic optimist who values humility, integrity and a growth mindset.  He is a husband, father of two teenage boys and a passionate participant in endurance sports. David works for a leading biotechnology company, who are pioneers in Neuroscience as a Business Unit Director. At work his aim is to create a collaborative, authentic culture where diversity is celebrated. 

In David’s own words …

The ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” is often attributed to Plato, it was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo to serve as a reminder that in order to understand others, you should firstly know yourself.

We spend time gaining knowledge, through formal education, experiences or perhaps through our interests outside of work. But how much time do we devote to truly understanding ourselves?

I’d like to share with you my story of understanding myself better …

I grew up in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa during the apartheid era and led a life typical of most young white South Africans of the time. These were generally carefree days, sheltered by the hand that ensured white privilege and subject to the carefully crafted apartheid narrative that black people were inferior. I was indoctrinated by the philosophy of apartheid through strict media channels and through daily activities like riding in segregated train carriages and the (mis)education that was taught in our schools. Fortunately, I grew up in a liberal household, surrounded by like-minded family and attended what was considered a progressive and liberal high school. Our family gatherings were characterized by discussions on the political state of the country in the 1980s & early 90s; and how as a nation we had to change, how we had to become a truly democratic society. As a young white South African male, I was also subject to military conscription where my liberal beliefs and values were frequently challenged as the military were required to uphold the rule of apartheid. Survival in this environment was not easy but you quickly learnt to toe the line in the knowledge that you would be discharged after two years. With my military service behind me, I settled down to focus on gaining a tertiary education and building a career whilst hanging out with friends, surfing most days of the week.

IMG_Chapmans PeakSunset at Chapman’s Peak, Cape Town, SA

This typical, idyllic situation changed dramatically in the space of a few minutes when a church that I was attending, was attacked by four members of the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA; the military wing of an African nationalist movement), leaving 11 members of the congregation dead and 59 members wounded.  On the night of 25 July 1993, the ‘Cape of Storms’ was living up to its name as a fierce storm was raging over the city and a last-minute decision would forever change my life and shape the ability to understand myself. I clearly recall sitting toward the back of the congregation with the stage to my left, when all of a sudden the side doors burst open; the serenity of the church was punctured by the sounds of automatic gunfire and the boom of hand grenades exploding. For a split second I was paralysed, watching the grenades fly above the pews whilst two men with rifles opened fire on the congregation, until I sensed the danger and threw myself and the person next to me to the ground. Laying on the ground listening to the crack of gun fire, I had one clear thought, I was not going to lie there inactive. I needed to move, I needed to take some form of action. So I managed to crawl out of my seat and slid on my stomach towards one of the back doors. In what seemed likes minutes, but were actually seconds, the attack was over. I was unscathed as somehow the bullets and shrapnel from the grenades missed me. Sadly, this was not true for others, who lost their lives or sustained serious injury.

On the night of 25 July 1993, the ‘Cape of Storms’ was living up to its name as a fierce storm was raging over the city and a last-minute decision would forever change my life and shape the ability to understand myself.

Driving home later that night I was in shock and felt a sense of anger toward the perpetrators, wanting them to be brought to justice for this heinous act. However, over the ensuing days and weeks I had one question that kept surfacing in my thoughts, WHY? Why did they commit such a crime? Why were they driven to take such radical action? Why did they think that this act would further the cause for racial equality in South Africa, especially when the congregation was racially diverse? As I thought about these questions, I learnt more about APLA, about how they were fighting for equality and freedom from their oppressors. I also realized that these acts were borne of desperation, out of a place where an individual believes that they have nothing left to lose. I then began to understand why. Why they thought that these actions could perhaps be justified. The process of arriving at this point of understanding challenged me to let go of my deep sense of justice, it challenged me to release the racial biases that I had been fed by the apartheid system. It challenged me to empathise with individuals who had no regard for my welfare or for the lives of the innocent people that they had killed. This was confronting; as a 21-year-old I didn’t have the capability to empathise with these ruthless killers, my instinct was to seek revenge. I continued to face up to these questions. I continued to confront the emotions that I was experiencing. I remained curious, I had to somehow be able to make sense of this experience. I’m not sure what drove me to continue to wrestle with my thoughts, it just happened. After much introspection, conversation and thought, I finally came to understand why they committed this act. I did not agree with what they had done, but I started to understand why.

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Through this experience I learnt that to really understand yourself, you need the courage to let go and free-fall in your thoughts. I had tried pushing my thoughts away, but they have a habit of pulling you back into the ring. I learnt that acting or reacting to previous thoughts/biases was a major hurdle to progressing my understanding. Above all else, I learnt that to understand others, I had to understand myself first.

I continued to face up to these questions. I continued to confront the emotions that I was experiencing. I remained curious, I had to somehow be able to make sense of this experience.

So how does this relate to leadership, more specifically courageous leadership?

The expectation of the teams that we lead, is not just to be heard, but to be understood. And rightfully so; if you don’t understand me, why should I entrust you to lead me?

So, my call to courage is for you as a leader (by the way I don’t believe that leaders need a title to lead) is to Understand Yourself. Interrupt the speed, take the time to reflect. Get to the place of truly understanding yourself. This may require you to confront your biases, it may be that you need to let go of preconceptions and challenge the decisions or actions that have worked for you in the past. I’d be the first person to acknowledge that I don’t get it right all the time, but I keep trying. I have learnt the value of being open-minded and curious. There was no courage in my actions during the attack, I simply got lucky. However, courage came to the surface when I challenged myself to better understand myself.

Perhaps the ancient Greeks should have inscribed, “Above all else … Understand Thyself” in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo. As leaders, this is expected of us and what we should expect of ourselves.

Interrupt the speed, take the time to reflect. Get to the place of truly understanding yourself. 

IMG_HoutBay sunset

Sunset over Hout Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Town, SA

If you would like to connect further with David, he can be contacted via:


One of my earliest recollections of David is when he recommended that I read “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle.  Since then, we have had many discussions from which I have come away with my awareness piqued, with my thinking and feelings expanded, and with an increased sense of being.

I am very humbled by the trust that David has placed in me to share his story; not surprisingly, his voice is in every word.

@CourageChick

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