We’re all aware that Nelson Mandela is critically ill in hospital and close to his passing. It seems a shame we always wait until the inspirational icons are no longer with us, before we start to contemplate and celebrate their legend. In a world where people frequently express their disillusionment with politicians and their inability to make a difference, he’s a shining star. For me, there are seven profound lessons that CEOs and leaders can learn from the great Nelson “Madiba” Mandela:
“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul,” Mandela still likes to quote from W. E. Henley’s Victorian poem ‘Invictus’. Prepared to go to prison for his political beliefs, Mandela stood tall. When his African National Congress (ANC) had been banned by the apartheid South African government in 1960, Mandela had advocated that the party abandon its policy of non-violence, leading to a sentence of life imprisonment. He said, “I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for.”
Reflecting on the moment when he entered Robben Island prison, off the coast of Cape Town, Mandela said, “how you’re treated in prison depends on your demeanour.” Threatened with violence by an Afrikaans prison guard, he told him, “You dare touch me, I will take you to the highest court in the land. And by the time I finish with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse.”
Keeping his emotions in check, relations with his captors improved as he sought to “communicate with them in a message that says I recognize your humanity”. His official biographer Anthony Sampson argues that, during his 27 years in jail, Mandela was able to develop “a philosopher’s detachment,” as well as, “the subtler art of politics: how to relate to all kinds of people, how to persuade and cajole, how to turn his warders into his dependents, and how eventually to become master in his own prison.”
CEOs operate in a much more time-compressed environment, yet should work towards attaining a similar state of Zen-like calm and detachment. In this place, they will not only benefit from better health and wellbeing, but keep sight of the bigger picture and avoid getting buffeted by day-to-day issues.
In 1989, apartheid South Africa suffered from racial violence and a faltering economy at home, while it was shunned abroad. The continuing struggle between the black and white populations seemed like a recipe for mutual destruction, like Israel and Palestine. However, the arrival of new president F.W. de Klerk finally presented Mandela faced with a more pragmatic political opponent, who was minded to free him from prison. For years, Mandela had stood for freedom from oppression. How to approach his captor and would-be liberator? Mandela’s lawyer George Bizos explained the thinking: “Let’s help him. Let’s not keep him in his corner by calling him an oppressor. Even the term can become such a stigma.” Mandela helped de Klerk to, “move from that concept called oppressor to that of a partner”.
Mandela understood that in a negotiation, both sides have to gain. There must be no winners and no losers: the South African people as a whole must win. Learning the lessons from Germany at end of the First World War, he believed, “You mustn’t compromise your principles, but you mustn’t humiliate the opposition. No one is more dangerous than one who is humiliated.”
The process through which Mandela managed to free himself, end apartheid and create a new South African constitution was testament to his tremendous generosity of spirit. George Bizos added that Mandela believed that, “we don’t have to be victims of our past, that we can let go of our bitterness, and that all of us can achieve greatness… he did it not through beating anybody down; most people wouldn’t have the forgiveness to do that sort of thing.”
Through his example and presence, Mandela has always led from the front. Like Gandhi or Churchill, he learned early how to build up and understand his own image. His trademark colourful shirts mirror his exuberance and optimism while reflecting his tribal roots. The 1995 Rugby World Cup provided an even bigger stage for Mandela to fuse his own image with that of the new nation that he was trying to build.
How do you get 42 million people to tolerate one another? Rugby was traditionally a white man’s game in South Africa, and the black majority population would routinely support the teams of opposing nations. However, Mandela seized upon the PR opportunity of South Africa hosting the 1995 tournament to rebrand the Springbok team, whose kit took on the colours of the new national flag. One team, one country, all would walk tall under the new flag. Mandela even demanded that the team learn the words of the new national anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika’, asking God to bless Africa for all of us. Although the firm underdogs, the national team was able to beat the New Zealand All Blacks in the final – Mandela’s single act of wearing the Springbok jersey was said to bring on side 99% of the white and 99% of the black South African audience, in a single stroke.
Team captain Morné de Plessis helpfully argued that this campaign was “respecting the people that we represented and what we could give back.” After the game, the team took a boat trip to the Robben Island prison, further adding to the national symbolism. “The world needs moments of great joy… the world needs to see that there are moments that we can live together,” de Plessis said, adding: “Sport is the great leveller. [Our victory was inspired by] the father of this nation, the one who inspired to come together when we never ever believed that we could do it. That’s called leadership.”
The other big shared experience designed to bring together opposing factions was the creation of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. This was about creating a public forum where people could air confront their former aggressors, make their voice heard and get to the truth. Mandela wanted to avoid the acrimony of the Nuremburg trials, which he felt had turned into a vengeful witch-hunt. Instead, this was “soft vengeance… the triumph of a moral vision of the moral world.”
CEOs too can learn to acknowledge the past and draw a line under it. Then, through shared experiences, they must forge a powerful new purpose that people can connect to and believe in.
In 2007, in partnership with entrepreneur Richard Branson and singer Peter Gabriel, Mandela founded ‘The Elders’. Composed of former heads of state, revolutionaries, peacemakers and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Elders work as a small, dedicated group of individuals, using their collective experience and influence to help tackle some of the most pressing problems facing the world today.
In the launch address, Mandela talked about bringing “the spirit of Ubuntu: that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings.” In a thread that defines his whole life, he said, “I believe that in the end that it is kindness and accommodation that are the catalysts for real change.”
With such high ideals, Mandela was alert to the potential dangers of his own personality cult. He learned to talk less about “I” and more about “we,” and was determined “to be looked at as an ordinary human being”. Mandela himself has repeatedly said that “I’m no angel,” and his presidential predecessor F.W. de Klerk concurs: “He was by no means the avuncular, saint-like figure depicted today. As an opponent he could be brutal and quite unfair.” However, while people may have disagreed with the policies Mandela pursued, they don’t question his integrity. His biographer believes that “it was his essential integrity more than his superhuman myth which gave his story its appeal across the world.”
CEOs are rarely, if ever, depicted as angels, but people have to trust them. Even if they’re not liked, people will rally behind them if they know what they stand for and what they believe in.
Time and again people comment on Mandela’s strong personality, saying that he has a aura about him. Fêted by crowds around the world, Mandela mixed politics and showbiz; criticized for prioritizing social engagements with the Spice Girls or Michael Jackson over a visiting head of state.
The adoration of crowds did not faze him: “I am not very nervous of love, for love is very inspiring.” However, Mandela is also a man of intrinsic humility, with the ability to laugh at himself. “I’m only here to shine her shoes,” he said when meeting Whitney Houston. At a White House reception for religious leaders, Bill Clinton paid an emotional tribute to his guest: “Every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room we all feel a little bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day.”
Leaders and CEOs who have this x-factor succeed. Our gut feels their absence when they are replaced by a less charismatic successor, even if we delude ourselves that the new guy is a welcome sobering contrast. British prime minister Gordon Brown was no match for the towering presence of Tony Blair; and even if seen to be doing many of the right things at Apple, Tim Cook lacks the swagger of innovator-supreme Steve Jobs.
It is interesting to speculate how Nelson Mandela would have fared in the age of social media. Confined to his prison cell, much of the technological era passed him by. However, he was never short of followers, and he understood that mass engagement began with a solid core base. Permitted to converse with other prisoners at Robben Island only when labouring at its mine, his inner core was variously termed the ‘brotherhood’, ‘kitchen cabinet’ and ‘university’. The bedrock of his trusted inner sanctum provided him with the foundation from which to keep on being inspiring. Those who were admitted to Mandela’s close fellowship during those years also flourished: close friend Ahmed Kathrada went on to hold senior government positions, while Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma graduated to lead the party. Political prisoners admitted that they actually looked forward in a sense to going to prison, as they would get to meet the true leaders of the country.
Often seeming to be above race, once in power Mandela broadened his fellowship to include white and Indian colleagues, whom he trusted them completely. He made former president F.W. de Klerk his deputy, and his “rainbow cabinet” was one of the few genuinely multiracial governments in the world. Looking to the corporate world, Jack Ma of Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba has also been effective at drawing to his cause a group of highly loyal co-founders. CEOs should develop a true fellowship structure that devolves responsibility and brings on promising talent.
After 27 years in captivity, it is easy to overlook the fact that Mandela was only actually president of South Africa for five years. He said that he was one of the generation “for whom the achievement of democracy was the defining challenge”. Aged 80 by the time he stepped down in 1999, Mandela argued that, “when a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace… We take leave so that the competent generation of lawyers, computer experts, economists, financiers, doctors, industrialists, engineers and above all ordinary workers and peasants can take the ANC into the new millennium.”
Many great leaders are true ‘one-offs’ and it is too simplistic to suggest that they should seek to bottle their essence to be preserved in aspic. Rather, the big challenge for them is to groom the next generation and ‘blend the essence’ so that it’s fit for their current and future organization. His chosen successor and fellowship member, Thabo Mbeki, was effectively running the country for some of the years while Mandela was still president, with Mandela taking on an increasingly ceremonial role.
The verdict so far on his successors? The next generation of ANC leaders has not been seen to deliver universally good governance: the country continues to be blighted by crime, and the OECD reports that more than 50% of the population is living in poverty. However, South Africa is still is a young country, one that Mandela stamped with the concept of racial tolerance and cooperation as firmly as his predecessors had stamped it with intolerance and segregation.
What we’ve experienced from Mandela’s life is potentially just the start, and his legend is going to be bigger still. In the corporate world that’s my life’s work, we desperately need a new generation of companies that are truly global, courageous and entrepreneurial, and institutions that people care for. Their future leaders would do well to adopt the Mandela mindset and his seven profound lessons.
Having discharged his duty to his people and his country, Mandela can truly rest in peace. He showed us how one person with humility, a dream and a connecting cause could magnify himself and inspire us all. He should take great pride in the legacy that he leaves behind, as it continues to ripple across the world and through future generations. Nelson Mandela: a true legend.