THE BLOG
12/19/2013 10:30 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2014

The Greatest Gift -- To: You and I, From: Nelson Mandela

Much has been written about Nelson Mandela. We just can't help ourselves, can we? There is simply so much there. This man who became the driving force to defeat apartheid and become South Africa's first black president provided a leadership example rarely seen in our lifetime.

But allow me to pose a question to you: When you describe the qualities of a great leader, is forgiving a character trait you include on your list? If it isn't, it should be. Proof positive of this fact is Nelson Mandela.

Any man who could spend 27 years unjustly imprisoned and then say this:"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."

THAT is a leader. THAT is a person who could see beyond himself. And THAT is a man who understood the absolute power of forgiveness.

So much has been studied and written about emotional intelligence. And this is an example of a leader who had the emotional intelligence to recognize that his life experiences could either work for him or against him. Powerful leaders understand the importance of using the whole brain to get in touch with "feelings." Leading yourself requires touching the truth of your feelings and self-understanding. You simply cannot lead others if you don't understand yourself.

We, like Mandela, have that same power within us. We can use our life experiences to create a greater person -- a greater story much bigger than ourselves -- or we can close the door to greatness.

But it is a choice we each have to make.

He chose to forgive. And by doing that, he opened the door to a story beyond anything he imagined: the freedom of a country, not just his own freedom.

In their INSEAD article, "Forgiveness as a Business Tool," Manfred Kets de Vries and Jane Williams share.

In his paper, "The Art of Forgiveness: Differentiating Transformational Leaders," Manfred Kets de Vries highlights one of the most obvious examples of transformational forgiveness with his comparison of two very different African political leaders.

"When you fly over Zimbabwe you see a wasteland. When you fly over South Africa you see something very different: two leaders with very different attitudes towards forgiveness.

"If I ask my class which living political leader do you most admire, 95 percent say Nelson Mandela. When you ask why, the answer is forgiveness."

At the end of South African apartheid and after 27 years in prison, Nelson forgave his oppressors and encouraged many of his party's members who clamored for revenge to do likewise, telling them, "Forgiveness liberates the soul; it removes fear. That's why it's such a powerful weapon."

In comparison, Robert Mugabe opted for bitterness, vindictiveness and hatred, against white Zimbabweans and the nation's black citizens who opposed him. By encouraging supporters to forcibly occupy white-owned commercial farms Zimbabwe, once the bread basket of southern Africa, became the poorhouse. Under his rule, unemployment rose to between 70-80 percent, life expectancy fell. In mid-November 2008, Zimbabwe's peak month of inflation is estimated at 6.5 sextillion percent -- making the national currency basically useless. A "clean-up campaign" targeting the slums where his most hardened opponents resided left 200,000 homeless.

We -- each of us -- can forgive. If we so choose.

Forgiveness means freedom: freedom from those who hurt us, freedom from those who took advantage of us. No longer do they have that hold over us; or maybe you need to forgive yourself? To free yourself from your past.

Let's leave our bitterness and hatred behind. It's done and over.

We have all been forgiven of so much. Now it's our turn to be the forgivers...

As we look upon the holidays and the new year before us, the power of forgiveness is ready to free us from our prisons -- just as it freed Mandela, just as it freed his nation.

Add the character trait, forgiving, to YOUR OWN leadership qualities list. And watch 2014 explode with hope reignited and dreams achieved.

I'm ready to give myself that gift this holiday season... how about you?

Forgive, and be released into your greatness. Once and for all.