What Nelson Mandela Taught Us
Leadership in the Great Man's Shadow
A few years ago, at a rally organised by the Make Poverty History campaign, Nelson Mandela said: ‘Sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.’
In using the word ‘generation’ he was not, of course, referring to a specific age demographic. He was laying down a challenge to people of all ages, from all walks of life and ethnic groups.
Years later, the challenge carries even greater import. If this generation is to achieve any kind of greatness, it will need to wrestle with enormous global challenges and make the most of unprecedented opportunities.
Research into group dynamics reveals that human cultures have a strong impact on individual choice. Being social creatures, even the most individualistic of us will temper our choices to fit in with the accepted norms of the groups to which we belong.
Cultures shape choices and human choices are the stuff that makes tomorrow.
It is not technology that shakes the future; neither is it events, even wildcard – low probability, high impact – events. It is human responses to technology and events that will decide whether our future is a great one or something less.
This is where leadership is so important, for leaders build and reinforce positive and proactive cultures. The challenges of today and tomorrow will call for nothing less than Mandela-style leadership.
Of course, the former South African president was unique in our time. We are not all called to be global icons. Neither, thankfully, are we forced to endure the oppression and imprisonment that shaped this great man. But we can develop some of the skills Mandela used to articulate a vision for his nation and to marshal the kind of support that moved that vision forward.
Here are some key principles we need to adopt to achieve that goal:
Respond with More Grace Than You Are Shown.
For all of his many achievements, the one for which Mandela was possibly most lionised was his preternatural ability to forgive.
In the movie Invictus, which reveals much about the early days of Mandela's presidency, the captain of the South African rugby team is played by Matt Damon. In one scene, his girlfriend remarks on how it is amazing that the team has achieved a place in the World Cup final, against all odds. ‘No,’ says the captain, ‘what's amazing is that a man can spend almost 30 years in a tiny cell and then manage to forgive those who put him there.’
For many people the world over it was Mandela's grace under pressue that inspired the most.
Mandela's forgiveness on release from prison showed that he was much less a prisoner than most of the apartheid authorities had been. He proved on Robben Island that you can be enslaved in body while free in mind and spirit.
There is something enormously attractive about a gracious spirit, but grace is not revealed in the midst of applause or adulation. Grace is like an infrared beam, which is only seen when things are at their darkest.
When enemies close down your greatest opportunities, or people you trust turn against you, the best you can do is keep your mouth closed and your head down and get on with a new challenge. In the end, your character and skills will shine through.
Live Big Picture, Not Small Screen.
In the earliest days of his presidency, Mandela established what would become a key tenet of his national and global leadership.
Even in smoke-filled political backrooms, where politicians often do deals that are at odds with their public pronouncements, Mandela consistently set aside a self-interested agenda to do what was best for his nation.
Many a national president has promised to be inclusive in his or her leadership, but few have actually achieved it. Mandela saw the 43 million people under his charge as his extended family and in many ways he led them as a father might.
Of course, politics being what it is, not everyone is or was delighted with his leadership decisions. Inevitably, politics demands that compromises be made between what is ideal and what is pragmatically viable.
Nevertheless, over the long haul Mandela tried to govern for the big picture, rather than the small screen of sectarian interest.
In any enterprise, leaders who consistently put the big picture interests of their community or customers above their own will do better than those whose interest is solely in short-term profits, share-holder applause or their own position.
Leadership is About an Iron Will Wrapped in Respect.
If like me you’ve visited the infamous Robben Island, you may well have experienced similar emotions – a mixture of revulsion for the demeaning treatment of the prisoners, with exhilaration at the eventual triumph of their cause.
Of one thing I’m certain: you will have been very moved by seeing the limestone quarry where political prisoners carried out their pointless labour, chipping away at white rocks day after day.
Standing in the quarry early in his imprisonment, Nelson Mandela said: ‘We must turn this limestone pit into our university.’ Over time he helped to create a culture of learning in the midst of hardship. In the end, many of the previously uneducated prisoners left the island with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
Two factors were at play here. The first was Mandela’s personal passion for learning.
I have friends who’ve had the good fortune to have met and in some cases work alongside Nelson Mandela. Invariably, they talk about his great natural charm, his ability to focus on whomever he was speaking with, so that they felt dignified by his attention.
This was no mere affectation. It sprang in part from his drive to learn from others. No matter who he was in conversation with, Mandela believed he might learn something.
The other factor at work was his iron will. Throughout his imprisonment – where he was as much a leader as during his presidency – Mandela maintained a stubborn belief in the rightness of his cause. This gave him the courage to stand on the inside, within his psyche, when he was under tremendous pressure to bow on the outside.
In an age of bullying leadership, where throwing tantrums is often confused with forceful personality, we must learn this skill of quiet, yet stubborn determination.
And we must learn to wrap our personal focus in a respectful and genuinely curious attitude toward others.
Your Impact is More Important than Your Image.
In this age of ubiquitous celebrity, much is made of people who have ‘star quality’ and leaders who possess unusual charisma.
The finest leaders in history, though, haven’t always been the type of people who light up every room they enter. Often, they've been people who leave left a strong echo when they depart.
Nelson Mandela was keenly aware of his celebrity power. Yet he used this as a currency to purchase better conditions for his people and more international investment for his nation.
For him, any celebrity or image that was attached to his leadership served merely as a means to a much more important end.
Many a leader faces the temptation to make decisions in the interests of short-term perception rather than longer-term corporate or social benefits. For some, the highest goal is the flattering profile in a glossy magazine, or being invited to sit at the best table in an industry or political conference.
This approach will not survive long in the emerging market or among the emerging generation.
As the spread of social networking and other digital technologies brings a greater level of transparency to leadership, individual leaders will increasingly be judged more on performance than personality. And those who treat their leadership position as nothing more than another step on the career ladder will be found wanting.
Today, leadership in any sphere must be seen more as a vocation.
This will become even more important as the millennial generation emerges into significant influence. Studies have shown that this cohort is optimistic about the future and its place in it, but is somewhat suspicious of ‘experts’ whose talk is not matched by their walk.
It’s a generation that demands that expertise is demonstrated through civic-minded, not self-serving projects. Leaders whose behaviour reveals only narrow-minded self-interest will find it difficult to attract and hold the attention of this powerhouse generation.
Conduct Yourself with Dignity and Nobility Whatever the Circumstances.
Men who were Mandela's co-prisoners on Robben Island have often commented on his ability to inspire them simply by his presence and his demeanour.
Mandela himself wrote about how difficult it was to keep up a publicly positive attitude, when facing enormous turmoil within.
Yet, despite the enormous pressures of loneliness, separation from family and frustration brought on by oppression, he would pull himself up by the bootstraps and quite deliberately walk erect, with head held high.
To others, it looked like the prison camp was for him a mere inconvenience, a bump on the road to eventual success.
Within his tiny cell, he kept up a rigorous daily exercise regime. This helped to keep his mind clear, but it also prevented an outward display of what many of his colleagues were feeling: defeat and desperation. His physical demeanour was always one of nobility – he worked hard to keep it so.
Now that Nelson Mandela has passed, he leaves us with the bar of leadership set high. The question he asks – will we become a great generation? – hangs in the air, demanding that we respond in our time as he has done in his.