Recently I’ve been writing about provocateurs – those who push boundaries, ask challenging questions and provoke people into change. We who would be provocateurs we must take up a new responsibility, if we wish to be more than hot air and false promises. We must be people of the Both/And instead of the Either/Or. We cannot provoke without problem-solving.

There are too many (of us) provocateurs who have got tired of the push, the argument, the uncomfortable feeling of always being ‘that person’ in the meeting. We have become frustrated, disenchanted and slowly edged further away from the core we long to engage with and influence.

Yes, I believe that provocateurs belong at the Fringe, where we are afforded the best view of both crowd and horizon. But we cannot wholly live at the edge of things; lobbing our opinion and commentary into the centre, if we lose the reality of being in community while trying to shaping it. 

The provocateurs who mentored and worked alongside me have been pushed far into the outfield, almost as quickly as we younger ones have run there. It’s so nice to be comfortable with others who think as wildly and weirdly as we do. We find agreement with each other, over our disagreement with the status quo.

In that comfort, we risk everything we are. Without the uncomfortable provocation, without a clear path and anchor to the centre of things, community, you might only ever think and talk, but never do. You might only ever be someone who exists in the paradigm of Us and Them.

While the old guard have been guilty of too easily reaching for the fringe and habituating there as grumpy old men and women, they’ve since created stereotypes for the new guard of provocateurs to break free from. The stereotype is ugly, painful and sometimes (often) true.

‘If they’d really cared, they would’ve stayed.’
‘If their ideas really worked, why didn’t we see any results?’
‘Great thinker, but terrible with people. No wonder people didn’t want to follow.’
‘As far as he’s concerned, we’re never doing anything right.’

Here’s a truth: provocateurs often feel like we don’t have a place to call home, least of all at the centre of community. Provocateurs are mostly medicine men. They bear scars and wounds from chiefs who’ve done them wrong. Our ‘otherness’ can stick out like a sore thumb but our challenge is to bear our sensitivity with grace and courage and continually go back to the centre of the communities we serve.

The New Old Guard of the Disenchanted

The new ‘old guard of those disenchanted’ with the ‘status quo’ cannot fall into the same trap of removing themselves from the society they wish to change. We have to be both softer and stronger all at once.

Each day, the influence of the social commentator is changing. Whether as digital columnist, blogger, journalist or preacher: the power of the voice is diminishing. The real provocateurs will come to be known as problem-solvers in this brave new world, offering more than just a list of issues for others to tackle.

“How can I, as a community leader, engage with these new provocateurs?” you ask me. Do whatever you can to help us stay and grow up in communities where we can learn to be great problem-solvers. Give us the mandate and chance to put our words into action. Give us the benefit of the doubt more often than not; and every so often embrace our Otherness. You often seem extremely ‘Other’ to us, too.

The way we solve problems will undoubtedly look different. But take the risk that as with all things that require other-ness, other-ness is often unrecognizable at first.

To The Provocateurs, New and Old.

  1. Be clear about where you need to be found. In the centre and heart of things. People find it hard to believe you really care if you can’t be found in the midst of their troubles.
  2. You’ll need thick skin, but not so thick that people begin to find you unapproachable. It’s your gift to sometimes make people uncomfortable, so that they want to change. Take it easy on all the other stuff because of this.
  3. Welcome everyone to your table, even if inside you’re thinking, ‘They don’t get it.’ You need more diverse people around you than you know. Someone who is willing to journey with you should never be turned away. Their diversity will make you better and further your reach.
  4. Don’t give up hope. Great change has been accomplished throughout history. Great change will still come.
  5. Learn to love solving little problems. You’ll grow in influence and trust. You’ll find reward in helping to do things better, even if it’s only a partial change.
  6. Learn to see the glass half-full. We celebrate each small faltering step of a toddler, each milestone of recovery for an addict or patient. We also need to embrace the smallest step as a grand achievement and to celebrate that. Don’t get so caught up in saving the forest, you neglect the trees that grow.

Any provocateurs out there who want to be problem-solvers? Give me a call. I’ve got space at my table for you.