RESPONDING TO OUR TIMES: Lessons From Nelson Mandela

For many years the life and leadership of Nelson Mandela has inspired and guided my work. Mandela had many teachers in his life, but the greatest of them all was prison. In the words of his biographer, Richard Stengel, “Prison taught him self-control, discipline, and focus, and it taught him how to be a full human being – the things he considered essential to leadership.” In other words, it was the solitude, degradation, devastation and inhumanity of that time in confinement that made him who he became. It was his journey away from the world that allowed him to lead in the world. Prison was, what we describe in our work as his journey to the “Other Everest,” a voyage that took him inward and downward toward the hardest realities of his life.
His years at Robben Island can be instructive for us through this pandemic. Here are three of the lessons:
1.     Let life mature you, not embitter you. When asked how prison changed him, Mandala said, “I came out mature.” He explained that maturity didn’t mean that the sensitive, emotional young man went away. Maturity didn’t mean that he was no longer stung or hurt or angry, but he learned to control what he described as his more “youthful impulses.”
Maturity, in Mandela’s world, was the courage to work through the bitterness and anger from the solitude, disgrace, and inhumanity of being unjustly imprisoned for twenty-seven years, and come out the other side with honest forgiveness. Maturity is about choosing personal responsibility instead of blame, transforming entitlement into ownership, contempt into civility, and self-interest into service. As my mother would say, maturity is the ability to do a job whether or not you are supervised, finish a job once you start it, carry money without spending it, and being able to bear an injustice without wanting to get even. With maturity comes courage, which is not, in the words of Mandela, an absence of fear, but rather the willingness to act in the face of it. It’s also about poise under pressure. Maturity doesn’t come with age. It comes with the acceptance of responsibility.
2.     See the good in others. Some call it a blind spot, others naîveté, but Mandela saw almost everyone as virtuous until proven otherwise. According to Richard Stengel, he started with the assumption you were dealing with people in good faith. Just as pretending to be brave can lead to acts of real bravery, Mandela believed that just seeing the good in other people improved the chances that they would reveal their better selves.
It’s an extraordinary quality of a person to be ill-treated for most of their life and still see the good in others. In fact, “he almost never had a bad word to say about anyone. He would not even say a disapproving word about the man who tried to have him hanged.” It wasn’t, it turned out, that he didn’t see the dark side of evil people, but that he was unwilling to see only that. He chose to look past the negative aspects of a person and see their strengths. Apparently, he did this for two reasons: because he instinctively saw the good in people and because he intellectually believed that seeing the good in others might actually make them better. “If you expect more of people, whether they are coworkers or family members, they often contribute more. Or at least feel guilty if they don’t.”
This belief was at the heart of Mandela’s approach to life. He believed that cruel and evil men were better men than their behaviour, and that their motives were not as cruel as their actions. In his biography, Mandela wrote, “No one is born prejudiced or racist. No man is evil at heart. Evil is something instilled in or taught to men by circumstances, their environment, or their upbringing.”
3.     Have a core principle. Nelson Mandela was a man of principle, and that true north principle gave him stability, clarity, and focus amid the turmoil and abuse of his circumstances. It inspired him to keep going in the midst of utter darkness around him. The principle that formed the framework for his actions and leadership was: Equal rights for all, regardless of race, class, or gender.
While on Robben Island, Mandala read the books about iconic leaders. He studied the habits of the great souls. He reflected on key moral virtues. By being principle-centered, he, over the years, transmuted hostility into opportunity, bitterness into forgiveness, and created a vision for social change. Mandela believed a transformational leader does not talk about polls or votes or tactics or popularity. A transformational leader talks about principles and ideals.
What principles do you stand for? What ideals guide and inspire your life and your leadership? If we don’t stand for something, we won’t have anything to stand on.
Today, amid this pandemic, we face our own Robben Island, an opportunity for our own “Other Everest” journey. Collectively, we are facing an opportunity to make us either bitter or better. Our decisions and actions will determine whether we use our pain, fear, grief, outrage and inconveniences to move toward accountable, caring, authentic citizens. Today, nothing is more important than strengthening our character and developing our maturity by taking responsibility for our lives, seeing the good in others, and clarifying our principles that serve the greater good.
EXCITING NEWS!
I am in the process of forming a business partnership with Ally Stone, who has assisted with the Banff Authentic Leadership retreats the past two years. We are building an online leadership development firm with an expanded team offering a variety of products and services, including coaching, an online leadership masterclass, live retreats (once it is safe to do so), customized live-streaming presentations, workshops, and leadership consulting.
Our in-person workshops will resume just as soon as we can ensure they can be done safely. In the meantime, the entire four-day Authentic Leadership retreat will be available on-line in the fall.
Ally and I are presenting a debut live-stream session on September 17, 2020. This is an opportunity to meet Ally and witness the incredible synergy we create together as a team. This is a complimentary event to thank you for being a part of my community. Be sure to watch for your invite. You do not want to miss out on this opportunity (RSVP will be required to attend). Together Ally and I bring a new level of awareness, understanding and commitment to what the Authentic Journey looks like in this ever-changing world.

LEADERSHIP, LIGHT, AND NELSON MANDELA

“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”      – The Christophers

When Nelson Mandela died a few years ago, many leaders around the globe commented that, “a great light has gone out of the world.” Mandela was called a “guiding light in a world rife in darkness” who transformed his country and inspired so many people around the globe.

Nelson Mandela taught us that what leaders do is bring light to the world. Leaders inspire others, not through their position, but through the brightness of their presence. During the dark times of our lives we are reminded to have the clarity and the courage to bring light to those we love and serve. Lighting the world of darkness is a vital aspect of leadership.

As a leader, how can you bring ‘enlightenment’ to the world? How can your presence impact and inspire others more fully? Below is some of what I learned from studying the life of Nelson Mandela, the remarkable leader who inspired the world by being who he was.

  1. Embrace Adversity. Great leaders, leaders with strong character, find a special attractiveness in difficulty since it is only by coming to grips with adversity that you can realize your potential. Leaders who are open to learn, especially in the midst of adversity, are inspiring. Nelson Mandela had many teachers in his life, but the greatest of them all was the dark years of Robben Island. “Prison,” he once said, “taught me self-control, discipline, and focus – the things I consider to be essential to leadership – and it taught me how to be a full human being.” Rather than destroying him, prison matured him, made him a better person, and molded him into the leader he became.
  2. Courage. Courage inspires. But Nelson Mandala taught, through his actions and his life, that courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is facing fear and learning to overcome it.
  3. Integrity. We admired Nelson Mandela, in no small part, because of his integrity – the integrated way he led his life. His leadership, and others who emulate this quality of moral authority, inspires others through self-leadership. Self-leadership involves introspective journeys. This inward journey is not always easy. Consider the admission attributed to Mandela: “My greatest enemy was not those who put or kept me in prison. It was myself. I was afraid to be who I am.”
  4. Forgiveness. After twenty-seven years of being unjustly imprisoned, resentment and bitterness would surely be an understandable response. But instead, Nelson Mandela took the courageous road of forgiveness. It is easy to forgive someone for something done inadvertently, but how do you let go of the past when an enemy has intentionally done you serious harm? Mandela found a way, and in that way, he earned both respect and credibility by choosing reconciliation over retribution.
  5. Service. You cannot lead others if you can’t lead yourself. But you also can’t lead others if you use power chiefly to serve yourself and your ego. Leadership is not about you. It’s about those you love and serve: your family, your community, your colleagues, your customers, your country. Great leaders see beyond themselves. They are compelled to transcend themselves and serve a purpose greater than self-interest.
  6. Civility. Not enough can be said for the simple, yet powerful effect of consideration and respect for ourselves and others. Leaders have an opportunity – and responsibility – to bring civility to their life and work through simple acts of kindness: a smile of support, a word of encouragement, or a sincere expression of gratitude. Civility can be practiced anywhere at any time: to a colleague, a family member, or a store clerk. Civility, including good manners, calmness in the midst of madness, and poise under pressure, is a common-sense leadership approach that is not so common these days.
  7. Renewal. The early years of prison for Nelson Mandela were bleak and trying. The wardens were abusive. The work was back-breaking. The prisoners were permitted only one visitor and one letter every six months. During this time, his oldest son was killed in a car crash. Winnie was in danger. The ANC was in exile. And the apartheid government had consolidated its power. What did Nelson Mandela do to find solace amid all the strife? He planted and cared for a garden. According to Richard Stengel, the author who helped write Mandela’s autobiography, “Nelson’s life was in service to others, and the garden was a respite from the turmoil and storms of the world. In that way, it helped him do his main work. It was not a place of retreat but of renewal.” In the arduous work of leadership, we all need something away from the world that gives us satisfaction and sanctuary, a place apart. “Each of us,” said Mandela, “must find our own garden.” Bringing a light to the world means recharging our minds, refueling our health, and replenishing and renewing our spirits – in the midst of the pressures and demands of the world.

May we each set aside time to reflect upon own unique, authentic ways to rekindle our own inner light and bring that light more brightly to the world that we lead and influence. The world needs, and wants, our gifts.