Carlos Blanco









By Carlos Blanco

On leadership, friendship and the absurdity of life

Life is a little different since we last spoke. In my earlier blog post Coronavirus was a small piece of news from a distant land. January 31 was the first day it entered the public forum of our cohort’s social media channels. As February wore on and the situation worsened, what officially became known as Covid-19 turned our MBA year upside down.

My classmates have already given vivid vistas into what those frantic weeks and then months were like here, here, here and here. As a new cohort begins their MBA journey amidst a completely new normal, I want to reflect on the lessons I have learned from the past six months on leadership, friendship, and what Albert Camus described as the ‘absurdity of life’.

On Leadership

“The adventure evoked a quality of his character that he hadn’t known he possessed”

— Joseph Campbell

When I heard this quote, which is in relation to Han Solo in Star Wars, I thought about how the pandemic had brought out the best in my peers. This included those working in official roles, others who ceaselessly provided support behind the scenes, and our peers who stepped up to the moment and gave back to their communities throughout the pandemic. This ‘adventure’ truly did evoke a higher form of character from so many. I need to highlight four examples:

  • Our student council – Crisis management was not part of their job description. Yet, throughout the entire ordeal Student Council was a constant source of support, motivation and strength. They took on a huge burden to help manage our academic and wellbeing issues. Student council advocated fiercely on our behalf, especially when faced with the risk-averse, overly bureaucratic systems strewn across Oxford.
  • The negotiations team – In the middle of all the chaos five students – Jack, Omar, Vera, Audrey and Yulia – put their hands up to negotiate with SBS on behalf of the cohort. Their remit was to partner with the school to ensure we got the most value from the new normal. This was a tough job. But the negotiations team made sure SBS knew when the school’s response fell short and what we valued most. The results were impressive. The Oxford Said Service Corps is the most obvious example. This initiative alone helped countless students gain paid internships that had all but disappeared in the face of the pandemic.
  • The BLM activists – Three months into the pandemic, systemic racism kicked and screamed its way from the USA into all our lives. The George Floyd murder forced us to think deeply about systemic racism within our SBS community. Amid everything else going on, the amazing Francheska, Kaya, David, Daniel, Aliya, Khanya (and many others) organised and delivered an incredible three-part Black Lives Matter Chats on anti-racism. This was not a token effort. Systemic change will come about because of their efforts. Francheska and Kaya describe the movement they started better than I ever could in this great video.
  • Liz Starbuck Greer – When talking about leadership during extraordinary times, I must highlight Liz, our MBA program manager. Just thinking about the amount of change SBS has navigated over the past six months makes me dizzy. Liz showed the humble, empathetic and effective leadership that we have come to expect from female leaders during this crisis. All of this was done less than six months into the role and while managing lockdown with a young family. I do not know how you managed it all, but I am so glad we had you as our program manager throughout this crisis.

Mary Anne Evan once said that “character…is something living and changing.” And crises are one of those times when the world forces our character to grow or shrink. I am thankful to my peers who showed leadership through these extraordinary times. Your example is the example I will hold myself to when the next crisis hits.

On friendship

“Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”

— Oprah Winfrey

Our limo broke down in March. And our bus left the station a short time after. Although, I kind of feel like we all jumped on different buses and every now and then bumped into each other as we sped down the Zoom highway.

That metaphor is supposed to highlight that our social circles shrunk as the pandemic brought an end to the serendipitous social gatherings that had taken place throughout the year. I found myself connected to a core group of friends. Through games nights and wine nights (all hosted over Zoom) they became a crucial support network as we went through two months of lock down in Oxford.

That is not to say the sense of collective amongst the broader cohort weakened. If anything, the experience of swapping our limo for a bus strengthened our collective bond.

Not to mention the efforts of our incredible peer supporters to keep the collective spirit high. There were concerts. Baby photo trivia became a hit on telegram. And messages of collective support continued to arrive across our communication channels when we needed it most.

In Khanya’s valedictory speech she summed up these feelings in the poetic way that only she can with a Xhosa proverb – “Umntu ngumntu ngabantu” – a person is a person through other people. We all took the bus when the limo broke down. And everything we achieved this year was because we cared for each other as only true friends do.

On the absurdity of life

“I have complete faith in the continued absurdity of whatever’s going on.”

Jon Stewart

During Hilary term we had the opportunity to take part in the Oxford-Aspen Leadership Initiative: Leading through chaos. One of the readings that stayed with me was Alain de Botton’s article “Camus on the Coronavirus”.

Albert Camus brought absurdism to the masses. The storyline in his 1947 novel “The Plague”, much like the coronavirus today, shone a light on the absurdity of life. That no matter who we are, each of us is ‘vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man.’

The point of absurdism is not to make us think life is unworthy of our effort. It is the complete opposite. If you knew that tomorrow was your last day on earth, how would you live today? Absurdism challenges us to explore the very nature of our self to find what we value most. In the middle of the pandemic this provocation challenged me to slow down, prioritise my family and enjoy what I could of the remaining time I had in Oxford.

It also makes me think about one of the lines from Cynthia’s valedictory speech. Cynthia said that this pandemic showed us the strength and power we all had within us, even if we did not know it existed. Having faith in the absurdity of life, or the will of god, or however you want to frame this phenomenon, should also highlight the strength and power we have to choose how we live each day. Whether we smile when we walk past a stranger. Whether we reach out to that friend when we think of them. Whether we say thank you to that person when they deserve our gratitude. Or whether we become better leaders and allies in times of crisis.

Dr Rieux, the main character in “The Plague”, argues that decency, which he believes is the act of ‘doing your job’, is the only way to fight the plague. So many of my cohort did their job to help make the absurdity of the moment we lived through seem normal.

But I only partly agree with Dr Rieux. He is missing two important ingredients, wonder and gratitude. We must do our job to serve others, but we must also do the work of ‘loving the world’. Which, for Mary Oliver, is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished. It is rejoicing in the small things that amaze us. It is gratitude for having a mind and a heart.

And when we combine service with loving the world, there is no crisis we cannot overcome.

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