‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena …” These are the unforgettable word
s uttered by US president Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, a little more than a decade after America had emerged as a new world power.
He wanted to emphasise that the success of a country rests on the quality of its leaders and the discipline of its citizens, as opposed to the distracting commentary of others.
There is a reason that his words are still referred to in presidential speeches and literature. Nelson Mandela, whose passing we commemorated this week, gave a copy of Roosevelt’s words to the captain of the South African rugby team, Francois Pienaar, just before the team proceeded to beat the All Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. US President Barack Obama referenced Roosevelt’s words this year in a speech he delivered during the run-up to the presidential elections.
Roosevelt’s words are a reminder that the person who deserves our respect, admiration and encouragement is the man in the arena – the person taking notable strides towards making South Africa a better place, and not necessarily the critic commenting from the sidelines.
Despite the tough economic environment, we have seen a number of politicians, business leaders and members of broader society take bold actions that have helped keep our economy stable and retain its investment-grade status. They achieved this despite judgment and criticism. Sometimes their actions were risky and unconventional – they were being the man in the arena – but their quality in character and discipline in action helped them to persevere until the desired outcome was achieved.
There is still a long way to go in the mission to revive growth and restore confidence across the country. We need more people to act as supporters and encouragers, so that more people can feel comfortable with being the bold man in the arena.
As we look to the year ahead, each of us should choose whether we want to be critics or supporters who encourage others to go out and take bold actions. I hope most of us opt for the latter, otherwise we will be remembered as the country that had great potential but struggled to support those who had the willpower to unleash that potential.
The more we can shift towards a more supportive and encouraging society, the more people will feel encouraged to take the big leaps they would otherwise not take.
As an example, one of the key levers for growth in this country is the development of small, micro and medium-sized enterprises. We are in dire need of more citizens to participate in that space, yet too few are bold enough to take the leap towards developing their small businesses. They are hindered by the fear of being judged by the critics should they fail.
Imagine how different the outcome would be if those critics actually turned into the supporters you need to start and develop a solid business – from funders, mentors and customers to suppliers. There would be much more development in this space, and more small businesses would prosper.
The fact that you are not yet ready to start and grow your own business, or lack the desire to do it, does not mean you cannot play a role in supporting those who are ready to do so. We each have the ability to help small businesses in different ways. We have to, given their significance to the development of our country’s economic growth plan.
Roosevelt emphasised that the person he referred to as the man in the arena is someone “who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly”. Our fear of failure tends to drive us away from taking action, but if we focus on daring greatly and taking action despite the fear, we might just find ourselves in a triumph of high achievement.
This article was first published in the Business Times on 11 December 2016