As we struggle to find an elder statesman who can equal the presence of Nelson Mandela, we ask, what was his secret?
Last autumn was a curious period for me as a leadership analyst. In November (2013) I was invited to Kuala Lumpur to run a leadership development program, where case studies of great world leaders were analysed. Later that month, and back in London, I was presenting to a network of INGO leaders about Ethical Leadership and again we looked at examples of great leaders of our age, such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King. One participant pointed out how unfortunate it was that most of the examples on my slide had died.
It was a very good point, but I responded reassuringly that at least Mandela was still alive. Little did I know that literally 10 days later, Mandela would breathe his last.
While I find myself scrambling to find worthy (and living) leaders to add to my slide of heroes, it is timely to reflect on what made Mandela such a great leader and what lessons we can draw from his life to apply in our own approach to leadership. Mandela’s legacy and example can live on.
Mandela’s regular appearance in Gallup’s list of the most admired leaders in the world will immortalise his legacy somewhat. However it is his impact upon the great and the ordinary, and the many lives he has touched the world over, that will perhaps be the greater cause of immortalisation. One can travel almost anywhere in the East or the West, and ask any average person on the street to name a great contemporary leader, and Mandela’s name is more likely to come up than any other.
From a street name in South Delhi (India) to a school name in Birmingham (UK), his name has found itself in more places internationally than any other leader. There are many reasons for this. Biographer David James Smith believes Mandela’s personality was a key factor, making him an international father figure.
Smith summarises it well saying: ‘there was a purity about Mandela, a simplicity about him like a farm boy looking after sheep, although he was capable of achieving things in immensely complex situations.’ He also said that Mandela ‘talked to commoners and kings in the same way. Everyone loves that he remembered names and took time to talk to everyone. He had all those great human qualities that people admire.’
The above exudes authenticity and warmth – a down-to-earth person who is also capable of achieving great feats. He had a universally desirable goodness and the ability to make a difference that restored ones confidence in humanity and the pursuit of principled action.
When a person is both powerful and good in nature, it inspires in people confidence. Abraham Lincoln famously said: ‘nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’ When a person is given power and influence but is not corrupted by its allure, rather uses it responsibly and selflessly, its raises their standing.
Mandela’s qualities almost entirely mirror James and Baddeley’s definition of a leader who has both influence and integrity:
‘Wise and highly observant, (they) are well placed to succeed. They differ (from others) in that ‘succeed’ for them means positive outcomes for both themselves and others. They use their highly developed networking and communication skills to generate support and build alliances. They can take the difficult decisions, but work hard to ensure that the outcomes are not counter-productive. Unlike (others), they are overt, and they demonstrate this by listening and disclosing appropriately. They are visible and approachable, yet powerful and focused.’
Indeed Mandela appears to have encapsulated many of the qualities valued in a leader throughout the ages. Among his strongest are: integrity, vision, courage, servant leadership and pragmatic decisiveness.
Professor John Adair highlights some of these qualities in his books on historical leadership figures including his works on the leadership of Jesus, Muhammad and Confucius. Foremost among all credible leaders is the quality of integrity and moral authority, and this is rightly emphasised by Adair. Further, Professor Joanna Ciulla affirms ‘the moral triumphs and failures of leaders carry a greater weight and volume than those of non-leaders’.
This is apparent when we observe the disappointment and anger at leaders in society and industry whose moral failures are revealed. From the long list of scandals in the banking sector, financial and otherwise, to failings of political leaders (MP expenses, the Berlusconi scandals, the Clinton-Lewinsky saga and so on), people are left with little to trust in their leaders.
While Mandela also has his critics in terms of what he achieved in South Africa beyond breaking the apartheid, there are few who would question his integrity. Christopher Alden of the London School of Economics says ‘He accrued a moral authority that transcended the ordinary politics that guide the worst conduct of political actors.’
Accruing this moral authority and nurturing integrity is perhaps the single most important pursuit needed to produce good leaders today. It is something that ordinary people must demand of their leaders more than anything else.
Mandela in his Own Words
When reading Mandela’s incredible story, one discovers what gave him such moral standing. In the context of leadership, Mandela once said: ‘You cannot know a man completely, his character, his principles, sense of judgement, not till he’s shown his colours, (by) ruling his people, making laws. Experience, there’s the test.’
It is a test he endured and passed. He demonstrated his love of people over power, by being among the few ‘father-figure’ leaders in the world who stepped down from leadership during his lifetime, rather than being forced out.
Mandela’s belief in people was unparalleled. He even saw humanity in his brutal prison officers and through strength of character was able to change many of them. Reflecting on one particularly tough prison Commander in Robben Island, he said: ‘all men, even the most seemingly cold blooded, have a core decency, and if their hearts were touched, they are capable of changing’.
His willingness to appreciate the other side, and his ability to transcend political and racial boundaries was unmatched by any other recent leader. Mandela was once asked to be a character witness in court for accused ANC members over an inter-party fight that took place. Mandela surprised many (and disappointed some in the ANC) by not personally stepping in to defend his own members. On this he said:
‘I regarded my role…as not just the leader of the ANC, but a promoter of unity, an honest broker, a peacemaker, and I was reluctant to take a side in this dispute, even if it was the side of my own organisation. If I testified on behalf of the ANC, I would jeopardise my chances of bringing about reconciliation among the different groups’.
Stances like this took vision and courage, and revealed his pragmatic decision-making ability as he sought to serve his people not just his party.
In 2007, on his 89th birthday, Mandela formed The Elders – a group of leading world figures such as Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, to offer their expertise and guidance to ‘tackle some of the world’s toughest problems’. Its work is certainly cut out, now that they have lost their founder. But Mandela’s words and his example teach us not to give up when we face great obstacles and setbacks, even if that is the loss of a great leader.
At the end of his memoirs, he states:
‘I have walked that long road to freedom…I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment to rest… but I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities and… my long walk is not yet ended.’
His life now has. But his walk can continue through his admirers. Us.
Image from: Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press
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