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ONE Newsletter February 2020: Member Profile of Hélène Smit

  • 1.  ONE Newsletter February 2020: Member Profile of Hélène Smit

    Posted 02-14-2020 14:33
    Edited by Nicholas Poggioli 02-20-2020 10:13

    Appears in the February 2020 ONE Newsletter

    ONE Member Profile: Hélène Smit

    ONE is happy to share this profile of ONE member Hélène Smit. Read more about Hélène at https://helenesmit.com/.

    What is your background, and what brought you to academia?
    I grew up in South Africa, a country with fundamental social schisms. My family home had its own severe fault lines and so the problems of people processes were always in the forefront of my experience of the world. One of the ways of managing early trauma was to escape to the solitary safety of the natural environment, climbing trees and hiding there, or secretly watching the sunset from the rocky outcrop behind the house. And so, I developed two passions: healing human relationships and being in nature as often as possible.

    For practical reasons, I became a mathematics and English High School teacher, which meant I started my career in education. However, I also had an undergraduate degree in psychology, and I soon left teaching children and moved to teaching people skills to adults in organisations, eventually teaching at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business for 18 years. I have ended up as a "freelance" academic without a fixed institution, which has both benefits and challenges. Three years ago, I returned to the education of children on a part-time basis, starting a school for marginalised teenagers.


    What have been some of the key moments, events, or people in your career development?
    I have never been employed in a full-time position at a university, I have always been part-time, and so the development of my career has shown itself through the changing lives of the students I teach and write for, rather than the formal achievement in academia.

    There are many moments that felt important in my career, such as when I conducted my first leadership development course for the Chief Justices of the Southern African Development Community countries and had the opportunity to influence participants that influence national policy.

    However, one of the most meaningful defining moments of my career happened quietly during a workshop tea break on a course for support staff at universities. I teach depth psychology as part of leadership education, with a focus on the development of the human psyche and the functioning of the unconscious mind. After a session for junior leaders, a participant who had been silent throughout the session came and asked me, in summary, whether I thought that his 8-year-old daughter's unusual aggression could be caused by his own aggression. This connection may seem obvious (and of course, alarming) to many, but to open such a window of inquiry in a traumatised and defended person's mind requires delicate educational surgery.  Many survivors of early trauma harden and defend themselves in ways that are destructive to the next generation and avoid the pain of reflection and awareness. The man-made the connection, faced his shame, and continued in the conversation to make the connection with his own violent childhood. This is a moment where the course of history changed, at least for one little girl.

    Another moment happened in the Prince Albert Skills School, a school I started for teenagers who had dropped out of the schooling system and are socio-economically marginalised. The motto of the school is "Dignity and Competence" and we work hard to overcome the extreme deprivation suffered by the students.  They have not received much care in their lives, and therefore do not show much care for themselves, other people or the environment. However, after two years in the school, one of the boys (who had initially wandered around in a drugged haze unable to focus on school) started noticing that the grass was dying as a result of the drastic drought in our region, the Karoo. Using his own initiative, he started watering the grass with the grey water from the school kitchen.

    What does the Organizations and the Natural Environment (ONE) field mean to you?
    The ONE field connects my two passions, focusing on psychological human processes and their interaction with and care of the natural environment. I do not believe that we can separate our relationships with the internal (psychological) landscape and the external landscape. Our relationship with the internal landscape is usually reflected in how we manage and care for the external landscape. I am interested in how we help students make the connection between the two in order to ensure sustainability.

    What are you currently working on? What excites you about your current work?
    I am completing research on designing a business school curriculum that develops integrity in students who eventually become leaders in the world. In brief, I define leadership integrity as an individual attitude / approach which promotes a moral ecosystem in the individual, the community and the environment.  In other words, if we have integrity, we strive to work "beneath, between and beyond for a thriving psyche, community and planet". I am excited about the way the symbols our psyches produce unconsciously can guide our ethical behaviour in the world. In other words, the dreams and images that arise spontaneously in us will often suggest creative solutions to the wicked problems of our lives.

    What do you do to get inspired?
    I walk around on our farm in the wilderness of the Cederberg mountains. I photograph birds and other creatures, taking portraits of them. I think about the meaning of my dreams.

    What is a book, paper, video, essay, or other work that you would recommend to other ONE scholars?
    Akrivou, K., & Bradbury-Huang, H. (2015). Educating integrated catalysts: Transforming business schools toward ethics and sustainability. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 14(2), 222–240

    Smit, H. (2013). Depth Leadership. Cape Town: Moonshine Media

    What do you like about your academic career?
    I really enjoy the ongoing stimulation and development of my intellectual life. I enjoy sensemaking and writing. I like the fact that my academic pursuits enhance my experience of the world, as I am perpetually working as a formal and informal researcher and this fuels a state of constant curiosity.

    What advice would you give someone considering an academic career studying ONE?
    Understand the link between your formal academic interests and your life story. They are never separate. Learn about the unconscious, personal drivers for your academic positions and passions, so that you don't use your intellectual life as a defense against your deep experience, but rather as an enhancement of your experience.