Continuing with the next step while things fall apart

It’s hard to know what to write about small businesses when the mood in the country seems so universally negative. I have just returned from three weeks abroad and am struck by how quickly the mood is deteriorating. One does not want to add to the gloom, but it does not seem realistic to write cheerfully about business as usual either.

Yet most of us need to continue as best we can with our business despite rolling blackouts, infrastructure collapse, local government collapse, central government malaise, currency collapse, corruption, and now foreign policy threatening further dark clouds on the economic horizon.

So today I decided to dust off a story I used in the early days of Covid lockdowns in 2020. As chaplain to the South African Sixth Division in Italy in the Second World War, my father was visiting troops in a forward position. Dug into an isolated observation post ahead of the rest of the army on one side of a valley, they stared over to the other side where their equivalents in the German army were no doubt staring anxiously back. From time to time artillery shells screamed overhead, making them press down even further into the ground.

But as they crouched and watched, something extraordinary emerged in the valley below. An Italian peasant farmer hitched up his horse and began ploughing his field!

This was the season for planting. He knew that if he did not plant now, his family would not eat when harvest came. So, although caught between two huge and lethal armies, he carried on with the next thing that needed doing. He might seem pathetically vulnerable, surrounded by these mighty armies; yet it was only his steady ploughing and planting that in a few months’ time would provide for the future of his family.

Entrepreneurs go into business because we like to control our own destiny. Yet we feel caught now between lethal forces way beyond our control.

Like we did when Covid struck, we have to focus our attention on what we can do, finding ways to save our business and preserve our sanity. We dare not allow discouragement about things we cannot control prevent us from acting resiliently in the matters we can control.

Resilience is one of the qualities found in successful small business owners. Personally we need to meet the usual requirements for physical and mental health: regular exercise, healthy diet and enough sleep, while maintaining healthy relationships and working on our own optimism.

In the business we need ruthless honesty in examining possible scenarios and working out contingencies for each. We were inspired through the pandemic by businesses that responded by doing just this, and surviving and even thriving through new-found direction and discipline.

The same prescriptions apply – watch cash flow, cut unnecessary costs, encourage staff, treasure existing customers, and look for new markets. A weak currency at least brings export opportunities for those with something to sell abroad.

What may be different this time is that we are not facing a mysterious disease out there, but known economic, political and social failures created by people. Big business is stepping up to help national government fix services such as electricity, and is being urged to insist more assertively that government act honourably in the best interests of the country rather than narrow political interests or personal financial greed.

Is there a similar role for small business owners at the local level? This need not be political; there are many dedicated officials who are probably just as fed up with squabbling elected representatives as we are, and who would welcome support on the ground. If nothing else, it would help to preserve our own sanity to be doing something constructive.

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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