Last Sunday while attending a celebration in honor of Nelson Mandela's life I had an epiphany; Nelson Mandela deeply touched my spirit on four synchronistic moments that came at critical times in my life. His loving spirit, unwavering optimism, and remarkable courage inspired me to find light in some of my darkest moments. During these times I might have fallen victim to cynicism however, Mandela's example helped me to rise above my personal struggles and focus my energy on helping to create a better world. Mandela's life inspired me to continue to dream big and reinforced my core values of love, peace and the belief that the world can be changed. In short, Nelson Mandela helped shape my belief in DreamMakers. He also helped to confirm my commitment to being an unapologetic optimist. This way of being, thinking and working has brought me great joy, love and fulfillment.
My first "Mandela Moment" came in 1989. This was a very hard year for me. I had recently divorced and was compelled to abruptly uproot my daughter from the town she was raised in from birth. Nicole's elementary school had displayed paintings that depicted blacks sitting at the back of the bus and a restaurant with a sign in front that read "No Negros Allowed". Consequently, her second grade classmates and friends told her she belonged at the back of the bus and was not welcome at lunch. The lack of sensitivity on the part of the school administrators was a powerful sign that it was time for us to go.
Shortly after this event, Max De Pree, former CEO and chairman of the board of Herman Miller and I were invited by Ambassador Piet Koornhof for tea at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. Mandela was still in prison and apartheid was still in effect. Ambassador Koornhof was interested in learning how Herman Miller, a global fortune 500 company, was able to mobilize highly diverse employees from around the world to participate in creating a shared-vision and shared-values for the company. He also wanted to know how we enabled people to participate and collaborate to transform our shared-vision into a reality.
At the time I was serving as Corporate Vice President For People at Herman Miller reporting to Max. Representing the company, I would frequently share our story with leaders from around the world who were interested in learning about employee participation, collaboration and shared ownership. These were Herman Miller's core values that flourished under Max's extraordinary servant leadership. They were deeply embedded in our culture, organizational policies and practices and most importantly, in our leadership decisions and actions. We not only struggled to live our values, we believed it was important to spread the word that it is possible to "do good and do well". We had discovered that when organizations authentically engage their people in a shared-vision that is compelling, aspirational and inclusive and liberate them to contribute their gifts, amazing things happen.
As committed as I was to helping to catalyze vision-led and values-based organizations and communities, I was nearly paralyzed at the thought of walking into the South African embassy and meeting with Ambassador Koornhof. All sorts of wretched thoughts ran through my mind: the images of the killings of thousands of non-white South Africans who stood up for freedom and the oppression and humiliation inflicted on the non-white majority as a policy of the apartheid government. I thought about my seven year old daughter's pain and confusion at being excluded and humiliated by her school and by the friends she had known all her life. My own memories surfaced of living in Kentucky, not allowed to eat in restaurants, use public bathrooms and being called horrible names. All of these thoughts contributed to my dilemma. I anguished over whether my going there was the right thing to. I was unsure whether I could suppress my anger and disgust over the inhumane treatment of Mandela and the non-white residents of South Africa. To exacerbate my predicament, I had just read Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa.
I found the courage to overcome my fears, and Max and I went to the meeting. I was still extremely uncomfortable at the thought of walking into the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C.. I remember I wore huge sunglasses to hide my face. Although I overcame my fears, the shame of being recognized was overwhelming.
Ambassador Piet Koornhof was disarming! He was gracious, humble, vulnerable and surprisingly candid. He told us that F.W. De Klerk was in the midst of conversations and negotiations with Nelson Mandela for his release from prison. He told us that Mandela was committed to making his release and the end of apartheid a peaceful transition. I was stunned! As I listened I tried to sip my tea and noticed that my hand was trembling. My emotions had gone from shame, to shock, to elation. I had to fight an inner battle to retain my composure. Once I found my center, Max and I told the Herman Miller story and Ambassador Koornhof listened intensely and wrote lots of notes. When Mandela died, I called Max and we reminisced about this extraordinary meeting.
My second "Mandela Moment" happened while I was serving in President Bill Clinton's administration. I had been appointed by the president to join the Reinventing Government Initiative led by Vice President Al Gore. I served as the Director of the Federal Quality Institute. FQI was a key resource to help "Create a Government That Works Better and Costs Less". This was a daunting task to say the least. I had to uproot my daughter again and move to a new city. I had left the company I loved and took a tremendous pay cut to go serve my country. Collaborating with Federal bureaucrats, we worked tirelessly, 14 to 16 hours a day helping to transform one of the largest, most complex, convoluted, highly regulated systems in the world. I was exhausted and felt the clouds of regret and cynicism drifting into my psyche - and then I received a reprieve!
In January of 1994 with two days notice, I was invited to join Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State and his wife, Marie as a part of the U.S. delegation representing President Clinton at the funeral of Johan Jørgen Holst, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway. Traveling on Air Force II, I found myself lifted into a higher cause with a vastly broader view. Secretary Christopher shared stories of how Jørgen Holst played a vital role in brokering the historic Middle East peace accord. Although I had been to Oslo many times on business and pleasure, I had no Idea the significance Norway had played in brokering the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
At Minister Holst's funeral the Norwegians created the space and energy that gave me hope that humankind could live in peace. At the reception following the magnificent funeral, I witnessed archenemies hugging, talking, sharing hopes and dreams. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were smiling and sharing stories. There was very little pretense in that room. Most of the people I talked with at that reception were inspired by Minister Jørgen Holst's commitment to peace and Nelson's Mandela's spirit of "Ubuntu" - a South African word that recognizes "that we are all bound together in the oneness of humanity". For a brief moment in time, I was given a glimpse of the impossible, becoming possible - that together we can change the world.
My third "Mandela Moment" happened later that year, in October 1994 when President Clinton hosted President Mandela at the White House. I was honored and thrilled to attend President Mandela's welcoming reception. To be in the presence of a man I so revered and respected was a tremendous gift. Mandela was a Godsend! He beamed love and everyone felt it. Through his example he reminded us of our mission to bring love, justice and peace to anywhere and everywhere we find ourselves. I found the light again and a deep understanding of my higher purpose.
My Fourth "Mandela Moment" was in 1996, two years after Mandela had become President of South Africa. I was asked to facilitate a visioning session with the senior leadership team of Motorola's Radio Product's Group. They were holding their meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. I was ecstatic! I was given this phenomenal opportunity to personally witness one of the greatest transformations in human history. I was not disappointed. I traveled through the city observing the people and was amazed at the integration. In the shopping malls, restaurants and on the streets, I saw Black, White, and Colored South Africans socializing together. (I believe the ultimate test for authentic integration is the degree to which diverse people socialize together). I talked to businessmen, waiters, and teenagers at the mall, anyone who would talk to me. Everyone I asked was thrilled to share their perspective on the new South Africa. There was a sense of community and euphoria that permeated the city and it was palpable. One day I got into a cab to explore the city and the cab driver immediately identified me as African American. He proudly advised me to go home, get my daughter and come to the land where we can be free. I was stunned. The people of Cape Town felt a deep ownership for their miraculous transformation.
My fifth "Mandela Moment" happened several years after my visit to Cape Town, Frances Hesselbein, CEO of the Frances Hesselbein Institute (formally the Peter Drucker Foundation for Non Profit Management) invited me to a lunch with Professor Russel Botman, the first Black Rector and the Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University. Stellenbosch University was the Afrikaner community's most prestigious university. It was once known as the "intellectual engine" of apartheid. Here I was having lunch with a Black man who held one of the top leadership positions in what was historically known as the Afrikaners preeminent University.
In 1996 Stellenbosch University honored President Mandela with an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree. At the ceremony they acknowledged that Mandela was "a living symbol of empowerment through learning, of peace and reconciliation through negotiation, and of respect for those values which make a just and human society possible."
The South African transformation, though not perfect, is non the less miraculous.
When I think of my "Mandela Moments" I know there is a divine spirit that unites us, some call it God, some call it a field of energy, but whatever we choose to call it -- it exists. My "Mandel Moments" were neither accidents nor coincidences. This was the height of synchronicity at work, reinforcing my belief that we can change the world.
Mandela, the quintessential DreamMaker so eloquently said "It always seems impossible until it's done"
This holiday season my wish to all people is that we embrace the spirit of "Ubuntu" and understand that we are all inextricably bonded by our common humanity. The moment we understand this reality is the moment we will began to flourish.
May all your beautiful hopes and dreams come true!
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