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Leader of the Month for November 2005:

Marianne Knuth

Marianne Knuth

Marianne Knuth's story:

The story of Marianne Knuth is a story of achieving a unique perspective and following the passion of conviction.

Perspective. When Marianne's family moved from Denmark to Zimbabwe during her childhood, a new reality confronted her. Many modern Western amenities were absent, yet she found a love of nature and a sense of community that had not been present in the West. With family still in Europe and Africa, Marianne spent time in both environments growing up. She went to school during the year in Denmark but returned to Zimbabwe in the summers. Her schooling continued in Denmark after her high school years as she advanced on to her undergraduate and master's degree. The perspective that her experiences had given her precluded Marianne from settling for a Western corporate job. Rather, she felt called to embrace the conviction of her passion.

It was this passion that led Marianne to establish a learning center in Zimbabwe to contribute to the creation of healthy, vibrant communities. Kufunda Village is a small learning village. Kufunda has model compost toilets, herbal remedy projects, day care centers for AIDS orphans, and more initiatives underway in several rural communities.

For her noteworthy perspective on the world, the vigor with which she has pursued her passion, and the significance of the task she is lending her leadership to, Marianne Knuth is the Leader of the Month for November 2005. Below, Marianne describes her insights and background with additional depth and detail.

About Marianne Knuth

Creator of the Kufunda Learning Village in Zimbabwe

Places you call home: Kufunda, Zimbabwe & Copenhagen, Denmark

How Marianne arrived at her place in the world today: In 1984 our family moved from Denmark to Zimbabwe. Soon after our arrival we went to my grandparents homestead in Mhondoro in rural Zimbabwe. Since then I have been back and have loved it, but on this first journey I was shocked by all that wasn’t as I was used to. My grandparents were not showering us with Christmas gifts as my Danish grandparents used to, the toilet was a squat toilet outside!, the water we drank came from a well quite a distance from the homestead, the Christmas dinner was not the roast duck I had become used to, it was boiled chicken and roasted goat (for them a wonderful treat that they had prepared for us and all the many, many members of the family arriving from far and wide), and worst of all I did not speak the language, so I was just a silent witness to this bizarre vibrant African gathering.

And yet, though that memory stands so vividly, what I most recall was how happy I was over the next couple of years. We had bought a farm outside of Harare. I remember life at farm with lots of animals, and lots of scouting around out and about in the bush with our dogs, as sweet and fun and rich. I loved it. In subtle ways. It made Zimbabwe my soul home – the place where I felt truly home, where my body feels it belongs. And I have since come to realise how many important lessons she has taught me – during those early days and in the years that have followed. Lessons around the importance of spending time in nature, of being in community, perhaps simply of Being – with others. I also remember finally coming to love and appreciate my Zimbabwean grandparents, who I admired for the agility and hard work that they were still engaged in, this late in life: up at 5 each morning, and then to work – tilling the land, collecting water, grinding maize, and whatever else their days contained depending on the season.

At 16 I returned to Denmark. Alone. My grandmother invited me to come up for a summer educational programme, but through the ensuing conversations, we shaped it so that I returned for high school and subsequently university. My mother wasn’t too pleased, but off I went. It seems that despite my Zimbabwean experiences I was still imprinted with the notion that the west was better and more advanced than Zimbabwe, and that it was ‘cool’ to be on this adventure.

During my three years in high school I became increasingly puzzled at the notions of development, and progress, and wealth that I was coming to pay more attention to all around. I went home to Zimbabwe each summer vacation and became more and more aware of the absurdity of the discrepancy between that which I was told to value, and that which I was told to pity. It was the wealth/poverty distinctions, and more specifically as they were played out in my grandmothers that struck me. My Danish grandparents were a reverse culture shock to me as I returned to Denmark. They seemed suddenly so cold and aloof in comparison to my Zimbabwean ones. So focused on money, and giving me good manners, and keeping up appearances, as opposed to simply spending some good time together. And in fact, over the next years, I realised that my Danish grandmother was actually not happy, though in the eyes of the world, she was beautiful, wealthy and intelligent. My poor dusty Zimbabwean grandmother, by contrast, was full of energy, life, vitality, love and joy (though her life was and still is tough and demanding). She still stands as an incredible inspiration to me for what true wealth might mean.

It has become a part of my on-going journey to not value material wealth unduly, and to look more deeply for true wealth of heart, mind and spirit.

Place in the world you would most like to visit: Cuba: I have already traveled to many amazing countries around the world (I think Brazil is a favourite), but Cuba is one place that I have not been where I simply have to go to. I probably have an idealized image of the socialist experiment that Cuba is today. Regardless of whether or not I will be disappointed, I have to go and see what they have done. I would love to be a tourist in Cuba, their music and café life sound amazing, and yet I would also want to go and visit their co-operative farms, their healthcare system (apparently Cuba has the highest number of doctors per capita in the world!), their schools, to get a sense of what they have accomplished and their lessons learnt.

Current personal passion: An on-going passion, living at Kufunda, is demonstrating local self-reliance. Below, Marianne describes some of her other daily passions:

Dream: An awakened Africa. Africa is incredibly wealthy in the power and wisdom of its people, communities, nature. And yet people don’t recognize it, don’t claim it. As long as we keep focusing on everything that we do not have, the very real material poverty that is, and are caught up in trying to catch up with the north, we shan’t grow significantly. My dream is of a people reclaiming their power, wealth and wisdom, and applying it in a way that is true to them and their culture. What that looks like I have no idea. I am not dreaming of going back to the village or the past, but I am dreaming of an alternative to the chaos and mess that today characterizes much of urban and so-called developed Africa.

Toke Paludan Møller, co-founder and C.E.O. of InterChange, a training and consulting company, says of Marianne Knuth, "Marianne is a servant leader of the younger generation but holds grounded wisdom that has no age in her actions. She can lead anything that has soul and authentic meaning to sustainable fruition. She can be trusted to serve others and the new patterns we need to discover and create in the world right now. She always seeks to act from clarity and compassion. Marianne has the courage of the heart, constantly in learning and lives a life of practicing what she preaches. Humbly she serves life and humanity with her life. I truly respect, love and honor her as a friend, human being, teacher and as a leader. She wants no pedestal or honor for her efforts - and therefore she deserves to be leading others into their greatness. I wish there would be many more like her to lead in this important time for Africa and for the human race at large. And she is great fun to be with........."

Sera Thompson says of Marianne, "I am one of many people who can say that meeting Marianne changed my life. It is kind of strange to say that because she is such a humble and down-to-earth person. But there is a huge power in this playful, elegant and sparky young woman. Marianne creates spaces which allow people to see something that they hadn’t seen before. Meeting her and working with her was an experience of meeting my own potential and the force within me that I hadn’t yet acknowledged. The thing that is most special about her leadership is that she inspires and capacitates other leaders. The shift that she helps create is about stepping into your potential and seamlessly helping others step into theirs. She creates these virtuous cycles every time she works, and she does it with grace and ease."

Bob Stilger, co-president of the Berkana Institute, shares his thoughts on Marianne: "Marianne Knuth is a friend of brevity and silence. When she comes into a new room, she does so quietly. She listens. She offers respect to everyone. When she speaks, she does so with a powerful, grounded voice which commands immediate attention. When she speaks, she does so with deep authenticity. Her leadership arises from that place where her inner-world intersects with the needs of the outer-world. As she stands at that intersection, she calls others to find a similar place in themselves. Each time Marianne and I are together, I know that I’ve been invited to be in the world from a space of true authenticity."

Marianne Knuth and Leadership

Favorite book: I thought about this for a long time – trying to think of books that influenced me growing up, and yet I arrived at a more recent book: Leadership and the New Science by Meg Wheatley. I think this book was a turning point for me in bringing lenses and language to things I had been feeling but did not know existed outside of me, and that I could use in my organizational work. I read it at the beginning of my term as president of AIESEC International, a global student organization, spanning 87 countries and 50,000 students. It became our compass and guide during the year, and the thinking has become an integral part of my life and approach.

Leadership and the New Science

Books recommended for aspiring leaders: Leadership and the New Science (mentioned above); Calling the Circle by Christina Baldwin; The Little Prince; anything by Herman Hesse; books by Ayn Rand – not that I subscribe to her worldview, but I find reading her very illuminating to understand certain views that inform a large part of the world today.

Calling the Circle by Christina Baldwin

Most admired leader: Nelson Mandela – Especially looking at countless examples of African leaders who have been unable to let go once they have tasted power. Mandela is an outstanding example of love and compassion. He forgave those who condemned him and his people to oppression. Other leaders speak the words of forgiveness but don’t live them. He lived them fully though his leadership. And then after one term he stepped back. He had played his role as the one to bring South Africa from Apartheid to democracy, no need for him to stay on for another one or even two terms. Mugabe by contrast is on his 5th term! I also love him for his joyful spirit, coloured shirts, and quirky dance steps, which he brought with him into his statesmanship. A great man who does not take himself too seriously. A few more like him, and Africa would be such a different continent.

Traits most important in a leader: Humility, Patience, Holding it all lightly, including him/herself (I still struggle with this), Ability to listen, Compassion/love for others

Favorite quotation: "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. And on a quiet day, if you really listen, you can hear her breathing." - Arundhati Roy

Advice for aspiring leaders: Learn to dance with the universe. My experience – increasingly – over the past several years is that we can learn to work in tune with the universe. Often when we are in flow, things don’t actually come from us, but rather come through us, and it is our work to learn how to be this channel, and how to access flow.

Flow won’t be with us as a constant, though. We will undoubtedly meet failure and obstacles, and yet we have to keep going. We have to trust and continue, even when it appears that we have hit the end of the road. As we keep going, we need to keep listening to our larger self, to the universe, god, call it what you may. Try to keep ego and fear of failure at bay, and walk on as a servant of life. In that knowledge that I am serving something larger, I have learnt to keep going. Eventually you will succeed – even if success will look quite different to what you thought it should as you set out on your journey.

And as we go on our way, let’s let go of the habit of trying to figure it all out on our own. I have learned the power of community and in what can happen when people get together with the intent to listen to each other, to learn together, to grow together, to create together. Magic can happen when we truly connect.

I have included below notes from my master’s thesis, where I studied nine people who in my view were exemplary in how they had managed to bring their spirit fully into their work. I have written it as advice to others seeking to learn how to do the same:

What is your metaphor, story, or analogy for leadership? To me leadership is all about being a facilitator. When I returned to Zimbabwe I had the strong sense that I did not know the answers to the challenges faced in the villages I would be working with, but I knew that if I could bring people together we could figure it out together. And so I have brought something to people that they could not have brought to themselves, but the actual content of the knowledge and wisdom generated came from them, from the collective. Sometimes we bring in outsiders as we can see that there is important knowledge missing, but essentially what I do is facilitate group wisdom, group organizing towards action. It is such that at the end of the day they can say we actually did this by ourselves.

What and where are the best training programs for leaders? Come to Kufunda for some months!

Lifetime Leadership Highlights for Marianne Knuth

My terms as president of AIESEC International. AIESEC is the internal association of students in business and economics ( www.aiesec.org). I joined AIESEC in '91, and in '96 became the first female president of the eighty-seven country, 50,000 member organization. I spent two years working full time for AIESEC in the Bruxelles headquarters, the second as President. In itself this was a feat for me (I had never been a president before, neither at national or local level in AIESEC, and no woman had been president of the global organisation), and yet what makes it a highlight is that it was during these years that I came to develop my understanding of more life-giving ways of organizing human endeavour. It was during this time that I was introduced to leadership and the new science and began to apply it to the organization. In many ways, Meg’s book was a compass throughout the year, as our team set about to support AIESEC in becoming a more vision-filled, flexible, people-centred organisation.

We set out to dismantle a bureaucracy, and to work with developing the vision and DNA of the association together with its members – not as a small group of people, separated from the rest of the organisation, in a distant ivory tower, which AIESEC International was often accused of. We were looking for a DNA that would enable people to think for themselves, and to be free to respond creatively to different contexts and situations – instead of having a rigid organisation, in which people only knew to do one or few things, regardless context or change of context.

At the end of our one-year term, people were excited by the energy and the vision and passion that we had brought to the association. Yet they missed an essential piece of what this was all about: the creation of a flexible organisation, working with a clear identity as its base, enabling varied and creative responses depending on country and situation. The team that followed ours turned around and moved back towards more structure – streamlining AIESEC operations essentially. With it, they lessened the need for people to question and ponder and bring their own passion and heart and creativity into what could have become an ever-evolving AIESEC.

Although the one-year terms that are the norm in AIESEC mean that it is hard to really engage in a longer-term process of change, it was an incredibly important learning for me of just how difficult it is to bring on the new, and how completely critical it is to keep working at developing good processes to do it, that truly involve and bring on board the people one is supposedly working for. This experience has defined for me my role in life of learning how to bring life-affirming practices to life in organizations and communities. It also made it clear to me that I did not wish to pursue the corporate route I had been in training for.

Between 1999 and 2001 I was setting up Pioneers of Change ( www.pioneersofchange.net) with a group of friends from around the world. Pioneers is a global learning community of change agents seeking to find ways to influence and positively shape the organizational systems they are a part of.

Setting up Kufunda: In 2001 I returned to Zimbabwe with a strong dream, and no savings. A learning centre to contribute to the creation of healthy vibrant communities in Zimbabwe. It was to be an important part of my larger vision for an awakened Africa. At the same time, the Danes pulled out of Zimbabwe because of the political unrest, and my hopes for funding were dashed.

4 years later, Kufunda is a reality: A small but vibrant learning village. 14 employees working full time in service of 5 rural communities. We run learning programmes at Kufunda, aimed not at handing over knowledge to the poor, but at generating and creating knowledge, new insights, practical solutions to sustainability challenges together. Kufunda also serves as a bridge between the north and the south. We have welcomed several groups from the US and Europe to join with us and the community organizers we work with in learning together, and in experiencing the richness of African community – in the midst of material poverty.

For me it was a case of knowing that I had to do it, and then just getting busy. It was a case of learning to ask for help (lots of help, lots of times) and in the process beginning to realize the value that was being created as friends stepped in to support me in making this dream a reality. The power of intent, and of simply starting. If I had waited until the funding had been there, or the programme had been clear, or … then I would still be waiting. Instead we have model compost toilets, herbal remedy projects, day care centres for AIDS orphans, and more initiatives under way in several rural communities. Most importantly people are working with a different level of belief in what is possible as they come together to work as a group.

Where to Go for More About Marianne Knuth

Visit the website for the Kufunda Learning Village: http://www.kufunda.org.

Visit the website for Pioneers of Change: http://www.pioneersofchange.net.