A Lesson In Leadership

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Over a cup of afternoon tea, very British, the newly elected President of South Africa Nelson Mandela asks Francois Pienaar, the blond, handsome captain of the bumbling, losing South African rugby team, how he leads? The scene is from the movie "Invictus" about Mandela's beginnings as the first black President of a country known for its racism, profound division and political oppression; he spent 27 years as a political prisoner, released in 1991 and elected to the nation's highest office a mere three years later. He wants to unite the country's 43 million citizens, including the white Afrikaners who fear retribution at the hands of the blacks who were dehumanized and unconscionably exploited by the state policy of apartheid -- defeated but not dead in the hearts of its victims.

Pienaar responds, "by example" and Mandela wisely affirms his answer -- but then takes the conversation to the level of his greatness. Mandela has decided upon a means to unite his country and build morale in the face of pervasive poverty, devalued currency, violence, and deep racial distrust; he wants to rid his country of what Churchill called "soul destroying hatred". He thinks, despite his advisors, that by getting behind the national rugby team, traditionally symbolic of white culture that blacks cheered against, he will have a way of bridging the racial gulf. He wants the team to go from rugby goats to winners of the world championship, which will be held in Johannesburg in a year. Mandela needs the team to win, an outcome almost as improbable as his rise to power, and he needs to inspire Pienaar to the leadership that he will have to bring to the task.

Mandela muses about how others can inspire us, how each of us can go beyond ourselves. By rising above our self-perceived limitations we each can achieve personal greatness and thereby transform a culture -- whether it is a sports team, a neighborhood, a small business, a large organization -- public or private, or even a nation. The film then shows how the rugby captain and the team players discover, despite their complaints that they are overworked and overstressed (sound familiar?), that their capabilities are beyond their myopic estimation.

I am left to wonder, how do I bring out more in me of what I aspire to? How do I encourage, even inspire, remarkable capability in those with whom I work? How do we all exceed our expectations of ourselves, and others, so we harvest the abundance of resources that exists within all of us and thereby take our personal and professional achievements to levels we never imagined possible? Can it be a matter of perspective?

Two masons were cutting stone for a church when a traveler asked each what he was doing. One said "I am killing myself cutting this stone day after day". The other said "I am building a place for people to find peace". When Mandela was in prison, literally cutting stone in the blazing South African sun, he survived by finding, again and again, the path of holding his head high and regarding himself as "the master of my fate...the captain of my soul". As a leader, he was able to inspire Pienaar, his followers, and even his 'enemies' to surprise themselves and become workers in building a nation that would transform itself with its unity, capability and forgiveness. Each one of us -- personally and in our respective work and home communities -- has the choice, decides, which mason's vision in this parable we will embody. Each of us is the captain of our soul. It is not easy; sometimes it is really hard. But what choice do you make? We know what Pienaar and Mandela chose to do, and the rest is history.

The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. Lloyd I Sederer, MD