THE BLOG
12/09/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

On Leadership: From Washington to Mandela

This week, we lost a statesman whose influence and impact stretched far beyond the borders of his own country. When Nelson Mandela died on Thursday at the age of 95, tributes flooded the news and social media.

This was a man who had dedicated his life to his country, and to helping his country to a new future. Through political activism, 27 years in jail, and a studied pragmatic leadership, Mandela accomplished what many thought was impossible: a new democratic South Africa. Getting to that point was no easy feat -- cementing that achievement was even more difficult.

Attempting to reconcile decades of white apartheid with newly empowered black activists was incredibly delicate. And yet Mandela accomplished this difficult task by, as journalist John Carlin put it, "doing what defined his leadership: reconciling generosity with pragmatism, finding common ground between humanity's higher values and the politician's aspiration to power."

I read that quote and immediately thought of another statesman whose influence and impact stretched far beyond the borders of his own country: George Washington.

Upon reflection, there are several similarities between these two "founding fathers". Washington can be described as an astute businessman, great war general, savvy politician, and, most of all, role model for what an American should be. Mandela can be described as an astute lawyer, great protest general, savvy politician, and, yes, role model for what a South African should be.

John Carlin highlights the example of the new national anthem of South Africa after Mandela became president. The new song was actually a combination of two songs, the "anthem" of the black protest rallies, "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa"), and the old white "anthem" celebrating the European settler's conquest of the region, "Die Stem" ("The Call"). This was a conscious decision by Mandela to make a peace offering -- to offer a clear message of national unity, of magnanimity, of a future without persecution on any side.

As George Washington wrote to the Quakers after he became president: "Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the persons and consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but, according to their stations, to prevent it in others."

Carlin calls Mandela "Africa's Lincoln" -- I would argue that he is Africa's Washington. It is easy to draw comparisons to America's Civil War and apartheid; certainly they are both recipes for bitter internal divisions. But we will never know what legacy of lasting unity Abraham Lincoln would have achieved as president. We do know what legacy of unity Mandela achieved.

A legacy achieved through reaching out to all parties to get everyone to "buy in" on this new nation being formed (much like how Washington wrote letters to all the different groups, sects, religions, etc., encouraging them to embrace the new United States). A legacy achieved through understanding that, as John Adams put it, "Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But... I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed." As General Washington went above and beyond to treat our enemies during the War for Independence with humanity, so did President Mandela. They both understood not just the morality in the issues, but also the strategic message it sent.

They both also understood the strategic message sent about voluntarily relinquishing power, rather than being forced. Indeed, it is clear that both Washington and Mandela were keenly aware of the new experiment they were embarking upon, and the fact that every single step upon the way would be scrutinized, critiqued, and, most importantly, set precedent for the future.

It is not that both were not ambitious men who aspired to power -- they both certainly were. It is that they both were leaders who understood that, as Voltaire said, with great power comes great responsibility. And it is that they were both religious men -- albeit very privately so -- who would know well the Biblical admonition: "And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask more."

Washington voluntarily turned down absolute power twice: once at the end of the War for Independence, when complete chaos caused many army officers to urge Washington to seize control and become king. Washington not only refused, he was furious. He was also sorrowful: "I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country."

The second time was when he voluntarily stepped down as president, despite great encouragement to continue on. But Washington was committed to ensuring a truly elected Republican government would flourish after him. He understood his decisions could reverberate for years to come. Clearly, so did Mandela.

In what was considered an incredibly rare event, Mandela also voluntarily stepped down as president, despite great encouragement to continue on. In both eras, this is unusual. Rulers, whether in the 18th century or today, are not known for agreeing of their own volition to go. And knowing when to go is a sign of true leadership.

Leadership in this world of constant partisan sniping seems rare indeed. By the time they came into positions of power, Mandela and Washington both intrinsically understood leadership and what it meant -- and what it required. They both had vision -- vision that the goal was bigger than the present, was bigger than individual power, was bigger than them; that they, in fact, were peripheral to the goal and to the greater good, which is what made them so critical -- which is what made them such leaders. With beliefs grounded in faith, duty, country, generosity, and honor, these were ordinary men who became extraordinary leaders.