Five Exceptional Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela


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By Hamse Warfa |Nov 21, 2013

Nelson Mandela Leadership

The fact that the world is in a mad quest for real leadership is not in doubt, more so at a time as this when few leaders really stand for what they say. Could it be that global leadership has been learning too much from hip hop lyricists who will use the same lines to charm fans in Las Vegas, Manhattan and Minneapolis, but hardly ever mean what they say?

Looking at the landscape of leadership icons in our times, it is not hard to see that majority of them belong to the generation in their sunset years. A really towering figure, though now ailing in hospital is former South African president, Nelson Mandela. This is the hero who will be remembered forever for delivering black people in his country from the demeaning snares of apartheid into real political independence.

The story of Nelson Mandela has been told over a million times, though it almost always emerges with a new kind of freshness each time it is told. Even through his days of hospitalization due to lung problems, many people across the world still see him as a larger-than-life figure in many respects.

From my study of leadership, I have identified the following five exceptional lessons in leadership from this global icon. I share them with you in the hope that the lessons will make us better in our quest to improve the quality of life for the people around us.

1. Character is superior to strategy
“Strategy” is one of the most frequently used words in business and leadership classes the world over. We learn of strategic vision, strategic thinking, strategic advantage, strategic presence, and virtually anything that can be prefixed or suffixed to the name strategy. But what the schools hardly ever mention is the value of strong, reliable and trustworthy character to steer forth the “strategic” agenda. For this reason, we find that even when a strategy has been well executed and the strategic ends achieved, you will be surprised at the amount of stench coming from the means through which the strategy was achieved.

Think, for instance, about the number of American couples who strategize on how to own a home, work hard towards it, only for the couples to divorce upon realizing just how unfaithful one or both parties have been in the quest for finances to reach their strategic end. Strategy achieved, yes, but to what end? Think also about some of the videos and images that come back home of the kind of inhumane acts of torture that some of our soldiers have been accused of meting on innocent civilians when in foreign missions?

Truth is, Mandela was not an angel, and there are many times when he was out rightly indecisive or made wrong strategic decisions, but his strong character came through for him. For instance, he is criticized for not having taken decisive action to curb corruption in his own Africa National Congress (ANC) government, which led to much public frustrations. It is also argued that he made dangerous strategic decisions regarding the national economy, which almost led to nationalization of private businesses. It is said that the economic struggles that resulted under his rule nearly made black South Africans almost worse off economically than they were under apartheid. But in all this, Mandela never lost his popularity and legitimacy to lead, mainly on account of his strong character. The people he led always believed that he would eventually do something to right the wrongs he had made.

2. Leaders have their fears too, but put up a front
We have been treated to Hollywood thrillers of characters like Mark Bauer, Sylvester Stallone, and Chuck Norris, who always come to the rescue of their people. These super heroes do not fear a thing in the world, aren’t hurt by bullets or bombs, and no wall – even those made of steel – can stand in their way to achieving their goals. Yes, these kind of super heroes exist – but only in movies. But real leaders are human and subject to laws of gravity. Many are the times they are called upon to show courage in situations that they themselves know absolutely nothing about what will transpire the next second, but they step in nonetheless.

The leader of a Special Forces unit knows too well the risk of leading from the front when entering enemy territory. He has a wife and kids to look after and this is one place where he can lose his life in a split second. But someone must lead the team. Some circumstances can tear a leader’s nerves into tatters, but there must be a leader even in such times. This is the secret that Nelson Mandela disclosed to Richard Stengel, the editor he worked with in writing his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” “You must put up a front,” is what Mandela told Stengel. In one of Mandela’s memorable quotes he says: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

3. Shaking of fists can harm a struggle
Ideally, it is hands that people shake when they meet – a gesture of welcome appreciation of each other’s presence. A hand shake with an enemy or rival can do much to calm nerves especially in a hair-splitting contest, and it’s a great show of maturity. However, there usually is a tendency for many leaders to retreat to one’s corner to issue threats, press statements and to charge the masses into action even after such gestures of goodwill. I would call such hypocrisy.

As a friend once told me, it is the height of hypocrisy to talk about someone in his absence what you would otherwise not say in his presence. So, as a leader, you can’t afford equivocations – saying two different things in the same breath. “Long speeches, the shaking of fists, the banging of tables and strongly worded resolutions out of touch with the objective conditions do not bring about mass action and can do a great deal of harm to the organization and the struggle we serve.” This is what he said during a Presidential address to the ANC Transvaal Congress, also known as the “No Easy Walk to Freedom” speech on September 21, 1953.

4. A great leader knows when to stop
Celebrating the glory of one’s achievements is great. But for how long can you bask in the glory before the sun sets on you? Life is made in such a way that there is a time fit for each purpose. If, for instance, you’re going through tough periods in your life, that could be equated to Mandela’s pain of 27 years of incarceration. He went into prison a young man full of energy. But as he says in his own words, “I came out mature”. But how often does modern-day leadership cherish self-sacrifice for a good course? In the absence of long suffering and endurance you can’t find maturity of character. Otherwise, the most common question I hear in leadership circles today is: “What’s in it for me?”

Pursuit for the greater good for all is what constitutes true heroism. But above all, accepting that there are more heroes in the making and giving them the chance to shine is a humbling lesson I have learnt from Nelson Mandela. With the good will he had to lead, Mandela would have easily presented himself as president for life like many global leaders have previously done. But he chose to not seek re-election into office after his single presidential term was over. In short, he recognized that there are others too gifted in leadership. He passed the mantle to them at a time he felt was most appropriate, and his leadership legacy lives on to date.

5. Let others feel capable too
A glance at the resumes of some of the modern-day leaders can leave you intimidated. They write in candid details the kind of achievements they have made at the work place, in business and in other spheres of life. You will be surprised at the extent to which they can drive change and deliver results. In most instances, they play down the role that others played in bringing about the achievements so that only the individual’s contribution shines.

Truth is, without a team even the greatest hero walking on earth today can hardly achieve anything significantly beyond you and me. This is because we are all limited on what we can do without brains and two hands within the 24 hours that make a day. It is team effort that makes great leaders who they are. However, by diminishing the role played by others in bringing about our success, we undermine the very foundation of our greatness.

Nelson Mandela would from time to time present the analogy of leading from behind and coming to the front when leadership must really be felt. Otherwise, for most of other times, remember that your team knows what needs to be done and will be grateful to do it to their best, provided you make them feel capable and appreciated.


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