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Why disillusionment could be a good thing

Colleen Magner
February, 2015


I’m noticing increased disillusionment in the people I talk to in my work. These are people who are tackling some of our biggest challenges in South Africa. Maybe it was there before, but I didn’t see it in my constant search for a new way through these challenges. And this got me thinking about what disillusionment might mean and what to do with it.

Together with my colleagues in Reos, I’ve conducted many long one-on-one interviews. The Reos process starts with an inquiry into what’s in the hearts and minds of the people who are deeply invested in, and who exercise influence over particular social systems or challenges. This often means that we interview people with diverse views and positions within the same sector. Across the diversity of views and sectors from within which we work, I’ve noticed people with years of experience and commitment feeling increasingly disillusioned. For many the experience of addressing often contradictory symptoms of systemic problems leads to despair. It might be because a person sees the goal of social equality slipping further in the wrong direction, or they feel their energy become increasingly fractured by multiple and confusing priorities. Or maybe they feel exhausted by trying to fill the gaps created by institutional limitations. Yet, amazingly, these individuals still resolutely carry on despite their feelings of despair.

So what is the balance between disillusionment and leadership? How do we live with the daily grind of what’s ineffective and still change things? I wonder if feeling disillusioned is a result of pushing too hard in one direction at the expense of other possibilities. Perhaps what is required is to let go and move in another equally important direction.

When the solution is not clear, one way to navigate through muddy waters is to work on multiple levels of the challenge simultaneously. It means knowing that it’s ok that your effort might not fall into a neat linear strategy. It’s about identifying “energy” (an openness to act), moving towards it, and exercising leadership from that position. This energy might not necessarily look like a solution. It might well look like a questioning of the status quo, or a disruption, or an inspiration for change. When dealing with the stuck problem of unemployment for instance, focusing only on creating jobs might not achieve the progress we hope for. Equally, focusing only on creating more favourable conditions for job seekers, perhaps through mentoring and education, might not get us there either. And the two strategies can look contradictory when you’re sitting in an organisation with a single focus.

It’s helpful to think of the movement between two important approaches, even if they seem contradictory, as the process of change itself. Our expectations of success need to morph, grow and change as we work more deeply within each of these polarities. The process of disillusionment is a natural part of creating a swing to an alternative, and a reorientation towards exploring the unexplored (or the alternatives we thought we had already explored).

The combination of a willingness to act and the feeling of disillusionment present important triggers to shift our focus towards a different direction as we work our way towards uncovering new, possible solutions.


This is the first edition of 'Moving through Tough Terrain', a monthly post that reflects experiences from working in places where there are no easy answers. It's something new and an experiment in how we can share some of the things Reos is learning about this work.

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