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An Open Letter to the Youth of Today: Please Respect Your Elders

9-minute read

In this article, I hope to:

  1. Give you a different perspective on Respect and its role in society.

  2. Give you a way to discuss past events.

  3. Understand that the way through entitlement (expectation) is gratitude.

  4. Stop contributing to current challenges and start making a difference.

I watched a video filmed about a retired CEO addressing schoolboys at my high school in Johannesburg, a school that just celebrated 120 years.

I invite you to watch it here.

Then I had a business conversation with Andrew Russell, author of The Leadership We Need: Lessons for Today from Nelson Mandela.

I suddenly had this drive to write how I feel to the youth of today in an open letter and plea about how to learn from those before us — instead of chastising them for the mistakes made without the luxury of the information that youngsters today have.

How To Build The Foundation Of Respect

My healthy respect for elders started at home. I was fortunate to have two loving parents reminding me how to show respect and know my place as a child amongst adults. Never interrupting, never being rude, always giving up seats for elders, removing my cap when greeting them, and going last to dish up food. An absolute bonus was having grandparents in my life who cared enough to spend time with me, too—picking me up from school, watching me play sports, and going on holiday with us.

I loved my grandparents so much that I would cycle to their house and sit and talk with them for hours. I was mildly terrified of them, but it was a healthy respect because I knew if I stepped out of line, they would tell me about it sternly. They had a look that cut through your soul.

I wonder how children would interpret those loving, threatening looks, as we seem to have shifted away from taking personal accountability and trying to turn everyone into a victim.

Then, to ramp up this healthy dose of respect for elders (and actually for myself) was King Edward II School. At the time, the school was 94 years old. Considering my gran passed away last year at 98, those are both staggering numbers to imagine everything both cases ‘saw’ in all those years.

At school, we were taught to always stand and greet adults wherever we were on school grounds and in school uniform off the grounds. I’m proud to say that boys still stand and greet you at the school. We wore uniforms, and history flowed in that badge worn over our hearts. Men from our school died in both world wars to give us the freedom we had to be educated—let alone chase our dreams. We were taught to work hard for what we wanted. We were told that we had special qualities within—but that we weren't inherently more special or better than anyone else.

Being special isn’t an excuse to do nothing; it’s an invitation to discover what you’re capable of and be the best human being in service of your community. We even raised money for KESfam and got to see money raised go to blind people receiving a guide dog.

The school taught us how to be gentlemen. Opening doors for women and elders, not because we viewed them as weaker or needed, but as a way to show respect for the additional years lived and experience we can learn from.

The mark of a great school, for me, is that tradition means something and is carried forward. You respect those who have come before you, however troubled or misguided you believe they may have been in life. A healthy respect to me looks like appreciating those who had come before you and the traditions they created while maybe updating them to be relevant and significant for future generations.

That respect means you thank them for making the mistakes so that you don’t have to. There’s a gratitude for the privilege you have to become part of history.

The Power Of Respect

Back to the video I mentioned, that started this wave of emotions in me. it’s 29 minutes of achievements in our history of roughly 22,000 students that have graced those hallowed walls from 14 April 1902 till present.

For me though, the real value in this video is at 22 minutes when he shares a personal story about his grandfather. Who taught mathematics at the school for 47 years. One of the most influential boys to leave the school was Sir Donald Gordon. He would go on to create one of the largest financial institutions in South Africa, Liberty Life.

Sir Donald built the company on the belief that everyone deserves to strive for financial freedom—and dignity in retirement. In 1985, Sir Gordon visited David Munro's grandparents' home during their retirement. “Oupa” (The Afrikaans name for grandfather) was teaching extra maths to get by in his retirement. Sir Donald Gordon had learned the value of compounding interest from him in Maths class.

It was with that principle that he built the fifth largest company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). Sir Donald never forgot where he learned that life-changing idea. The purpose of his visit, though, was not to talk about his appreciation — but to show it.

Sir Donald’s visit was to inform them of his desire to provide a life pension to cover their expenses for the rest of their lives. Oupa lived in peace and dignity for a further four years, and his grandmother — a further 21 years.

The compounding interest of his gratitude meant that he paid for financial security for a quarter of a century on what was five years' worth of learning.

As David Munro explains in the speech to the boys of Kind Edwards, “This is a story of a great son of this place. Worthy. And it’s a story I’m proud to tell today in this great hall. It’s also the story of why I gave up my job at Standard Bank over a weekend, to become the Chief Executive of Liberty — to do my best to restore the dignity, health, and competitiveness of that great company; and honor Sir Donald Gordon in my own way for what he had done for my family.”

What’s incredible about this story is Sir Donald never told his family who the beneficiaries were or why he was helping them. It was only at Sir Donald’s funeral, where David Munro went and met with the family, that he was able to share what an impact their father had had on his own.

David finished his talk to the school by inviting all who listened to him to take inspired action.

“You have the opportunity and potential to write these kinds of stories into the future. To have an impact far beyond what you thought was possible, to be inspiring, to change lives, to reach your potential, and to go beyond…… ‘Sons of this place, let this of you be said, that you who live – are worthy of your dead.’ Boys - wear that green blazer with pride.”

That final sentence is what’s written on our cenotaph in the center of the school—a monument dedicated to people buried elsewhere because of war. A reminder that both our education and freedom are because of those who came before us.

Including Nelson Mandela.

Was Nelson Mandela A Sell-Out?

Let’s start with some perspective.

19 years in jail on Robben Island.

27 years in jail total.

67 years serving his country.

Remember lockdown? At worst — let’s say we were all housebound for three years. That’s 11% of what Nelson Mandela and his comrades spent. Not in their home though. In a cell. Missing their kids growing up. First steps. Birthdays. Christmas. New Year. First days of school. Anniversaries. Even funerals. Eating terrible food.

My favorite quote from Teddy Roosevelt is, “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 better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, 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 he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

There is no effort without error or shortcoming.

Criticizing people in the past is like mocking a 6-year-old at school because he doesn’t know the answer. Armchair activists. Monday morning quarterbacking. These are done with hindsight and no skin in the game.

Did Nelson Mandela do everything amazingly well? I doubt it…

But let’s understand some facts.

  • 27 years in jail for trying to create an equal society.

  • 67 years of public service.

  • Negotiated South Africa safely and narrowly escaping a full-blown civil war.

  • Successfully held free and fair elections in 1994, just four years after his release.

  • The first country ever to hold hearings called “Truth & Reconciliation” to give the nation an opportunity to expose the wounds so they could be cleaned out and healed.

  • Became arguably the most recognized world leader in history.

Andrew asked a question aloud as if speaking to kids with us, “Who are your leaders you look up to?”

Something worth spending time pondering.

I believe vengeance blackens the heart and forms the root of this disdain against Mandela. I have no doubt many individuals suffered unthinkable hardship during Apartheid, but vengeance wouldn’t solve anything—nor bring relief. Unfortunately, casting doubt on why Mandela’s failings are why you may still be enduring hardship is an easy scapegoat. It’s also an incredibly complex issue that I alone cannot explain away here.

I wrote an article about the five values we can learn from Nelson Mandela’s leadership to incorporate into our own lives and leadership today. Forgiveness is one of them.

I can only imagine how many scenarios played through Mandela’s mind in prison all those years. Maybe some of those included exacting revenge? It’s a short-term gain for a long-term pain.

Mandela was a man. A flawed man. Called crazy to attempt to overthrow an oppressive system peacefully. A vision that effectively took 50 years to see through.

Read that again.

50…. Years…

I understand we live in an age of instant gratification, but life doesn’t reward instant — it rewards patience, perseverance, discipline, and love. Could you do these things for half your life with what you value most?

There’s a reason why you say Nelson Mandela, and almost everyone in the world knows who he is.

How Do We Move Forward Together?

First, I challenge myself to be as committed as Nelson Mandela was in pursuit of his ideals. I currently have more than a decade of fundraising under my belt, putting myself out there publicly for an idea to build a community on what we CAN do and challenging myself and my beliefs at every turn. I believe we must focus on solutions that can be worked on instead of spiraling into negative feedback loops about everything wrong with the world.

I believe part of that starts with Respect.

Respect for yourself.

Respect for your elders (you don’t have to agree with everything they say)

Respect for our ancestors.

Respect for the land we live on.

That time talking with my grandparents taught me how valuable the power of giving them my time and attention was to learn how their ideas or beliefs were formed and the insanity that they went through in their lifetime. Just look at this graphic.


But reading things like this helps cultivate gratitude for your life today, which is far better than at any time in history (especially if you can read this.) 100 years ago, the life expectancy for men was 56. Now it’s 82.8.

What can we do with those extra 26 years??? Nelson Mandela spent them in prison. Learning languages, getting degrees, cultivating forgiveness, and learning to treat his captors like human beings.

What did you do during lockdowns? How many times have we complained about “not having enough time to (insert X)”? When complaining about how bad COVID was and the lockdown, think about being in jail. How soul-destroying that is, and how Mandela never had any real hope of not serving the life sentence. But he pursued his dream in the most dire circumstances anyway, pooping in a bucket every night and cleaning it the next day.

Respect allows you to cultivate perspective, which leads to gratitude for today. Isn’t that all we have? Today?

Two factors are at play — the older generation has sometimes blindly accepted a way of life and doing things “because that’s how it’s been done.” Then, a younger generation starts questioning “why” we do it this way. We should never see someone asking “why” as a threat — rather an opportunity to help educate them.

Even when questions seem silly or inconsequential, never underestimate the power of being able to help someone else understand why it’s beneficial to do something. Working with kids, I was constantly being told that what we did was stupid, random, or a waste of time.

Instead of dismissing them and their claims, I would calmly ask why they thought that and then ask if they were open to feedback and learning the thought behind doing something.

Let’s use an easy example of not getting into the habit of picking up snakes — even the non-venomous ones. I explained that by doing something enough times repeatedly, we start to build an automatic response. Of course, picking up 150 non-venomous snakes isn’t an issue…. But on the 151st time, when you do it without thinking, you’ll grab a poisonous one and get bitten.

I actually had this conversation, and because Alex took that information in, instead of picking up a Timber Rattlesnake (and most likely a trip to the emergency ward) stopped to think, “what snake is this?” first, which gave him the split second he needed to hear the rattle and slowly back away.

Imagine if I said, “because I said so!”

I bet you feel a visceral feeling in your stomach to that statement. Again, it’s easier to say that in the short term and more detrimental in the long term.

So, while I’m inviting the youngsters to read this and cultivate gratitude for those of us older than them — I’m also pleading with my generation and older to develop the leadership qualities of Mandela and implement patience, perseverance, discipline, and love with youngsters.

Role model the hard conversations they need to hear. Show them how to think deeply and evaluate what information is being presented to them. Invite them to research the origin stories of things and to cultivate a deeper level of appreciation for the world and what has happened in order for them to enjoy the freedoms they have today.

The failure of today’s youth isn’t because they are worse than previous generations: it’s because of our collective failure to teach and guide them. How else can they figure out a better way to do things rather than make themselves feel better for their lack of achievements by tearing down heroes — instead of lifting themselves up by embodying the values true leaders display?

The hardest thing to do is take responsibility for our part in the mess that is today’s society. I urge parents, and I ask you to be critical — are you role modeling tackling the difficult conversations and critical thinking our next generation needs?

Why not all read this article and discuss how each of you feels about the ideas, facts, and insights shared?

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