What makes a great leader? Can benevolence be balanced with pragmatism? Can bottom line co-exist with the greater good? What are the quintessential signs of successful leadership? The passing of Nelson Mandela brings such questions to the fore. Nelson Mandela was a natural leader. The essence of the man propelled him to greatness, amidst the suffering and depersonalization to which he was subjected, forgiving his jailers in a profound teaching of compassion. What can we learn about transcendent leadership from Nelson Mandela's example?
An imperfect man, Mandela self-professed his struggles and challenges. From freedom fighter, to prisoner, to President of South Africa, Mandela's dedication to his mission seemingly never wavered. President Barack Obama spoke to the oversized figure that Mandala has become in the global conversation, forever changing the face of activism and political boundary drawing in his dismantling of South African apartheid. "He no longer belongs to us," Obama said in his reaction to Mandela's death, "he belongs to the ages."
These are dark days for political leadership. Approval ratings for Congress are in the single digits with support of lawmakers and confidence in government hitting all-time lows. Lessons of what comprise true leadership must be sought to re-instill faith in social structures and those in power. Clues may lie in the life of Nelson Mandela. In a 2008 Time magazine cover story entitled "The Secrets of Leadership," Mandela biographer, Richard Stengel described Mandela as a man who "liberated a country from a system of violent prejudice and helped unite white and black, oppressor and oppressed, in a way that had never been done before." Mandela reflected on his own leadership success, calling himself nothing more than a politician "knowing precisely when and how to transition between his roles as warrior, martyr, diplomat and statesman." Rather than philosophy or theory, Mandela stressed that leadership boils down to tactics, and offered eight leadership lessons:
1. Courage is not the absence of fear - it is inspiring others to move beyond it
2. Lead from the front - but don't leave your base behind
3. Lead from the back - and let others believe they are in front
4. Know your enemy - and learn about his or her favorite sport (be thorough)
5. Keep your friends close - and your rivals even closer
6. Appearance matters - and remember to smile
7. Nothing is black or white
8. Quitting is leading too (knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship)
Mandela's leadership acumen derives not from brawn but from his mindfulness and maturity; a man who, as author Stengel noted, went into prison "emotional and headstrong, and emerged balanced and disciplined," valuable attributes for any leader. "There is nothing so rare -- or so valuable," Stengel wrote, "as a mature man."
In The Tao of Leadership, John Heider pointed to a "ripple effect," of each person's influence in the greater world. "First, get your own life in order," Heider advised. "Ground yourself in the single principle so that your behavior is wholesome and effective. If you do that, you will earn respect and be a powerful influence." What starts as individual action turns into a shared consciousness that moves people and nations.
The best way to right our country's economic downturn, affect the public's political malaise, and qualm community-wide fears of financial ruin is by cultivating leadership qualities in each of our own lives first, in how we live, work, and play. In The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck, M.D. equated leadership skills to achieving spiritual development. "We are all generals," Peck said. "Whatever action we take may influence the course of civilization. The decision whether to praise or punish a single child may have vast consequences." Peck goes on to warn that, "It is easy to act with the awareness of limited data and let the chips fall as they may," but the goal, instead, is to "maintain one's ability to... make decisions with greater and greater awareness."
Renowned Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, in Toward a Meaningful Life: the Wisdom of the Rebbe, considered a leader's commitment: "Is he truly devoted to his mission, or just seeking glory? Is he truly interested in the welfare of others, or simply building a flock for his own aggrandizement? A true leader wants nothing more than to give people pride, to make people stand on their own, as leaders in their own right...[A leader] inspires by love, not coercion...Genuine leadership," Schneerson pointed out, "must give people a long-term vision that imbues their lives with meaning; it must point them in a new direction and show how their every action is an indispensable part of a purposeful whole." Powerful leaders give us hope: hope in the future and in ourselves.
"Lead, follow, or get out of the way," is a famous Thomas Paine quote, used by billionaire and philanthropist, Ted Turner as his personal rallying cry -- and it aptly describes the maverick's gung-ho, make no excuses approach to leadership. As Turner tells it, he is the "captain of his own fate." Similarly, after Mandela was released from Robben Island Prison in 1982, and took his famous walk to freedom after 27 years of imprisonment, he became a global symbol of courage and grace, personifying someone willing to sacrifice his own welfare for a value much larger than himself, human dignity.
President Obama said his own path was paved with the words and actions of Nelson Mandela, and that by Mandela's example, President Obama saw "what human beings can do when they are guided by their hopes and not by their fears." Mandela's life teaches us to "make decisions guided not by hate but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make."
Nelson Mandela stood tall. Yet, despite his hardships, years of isolation, and historic rise to world leader, the iconic image of Mandela that may be most lasting, imbedded in the psyche of our time, is his ever-radiant smile of compassion, his commitment to freedom, and his immense, and humble, sense of humor.
A version of this blog was originally published in Ambassador Magazine.