Leading like Madiba: Leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela

As I recovered from the numbness that came with learning about the passing-on of Nelson Mandela, I thought of sharing an article (below) I wrote, some time ago on this extraordinary person’s leadership.

Nelson Mandela

The world is in dire need of great leaders, ones who inspire people not through words but by serving them. The cutting edge in leadership discourse is the old fashioned idea of leadership through service. The whole human race, we could say, desperately needs these servant-leaders who really attend to others and are beacons of hope in our search for a world society where justice, fairness, care for the weaker members of our communities, and love flourish.

The call for leaders who genuinely serve their people is obvious in social and political communities. We can see it equally in the economic sphere, in business organisations or corporations. The high turnover of staff in many work places suggests that people are looking for what Lance Secretan, a Canadian guru on leadership, calls ‘soul space’ – an environment where they will not simply be cogs in the wheel of production but can live full and happy lives.

In my book, Leading Like Madiba: Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela , published in March 2006, I have attempted to present through stories the type of leadership that will take our world a higher ground. What is so extraordinary about Mr Mandela’s style and practice of leadership is that it crosses the boundaries of culture, gender, race, religion and age. Madiba (as he is fondly referred to in his home country) has done so in a society that was once more polarized than any other – one the world expected to explode along racial and ethnic lines. That it did not was largely due to this extraordinary man and his unique leadership style. What is equally fascinating about Madiba is the fact that each person that has encountered, in one form or another, his leadership feels personally attended to and served.

Mr Mandela’s leadership transforms ordinary people, events and actions into the extraordinary. Great leadership consists in the capacity to inspire others to greatness. I use the term ‘inspire’ to mean the ability to bring out the best in the people one is entrusted to work and live with. Inspirational leadership, like the yeast that imperceptibly causes the dough to rise and ‘ripen’, permeates society and its institutions in such a way that everyone begins to see their own uniqueness and take up their role in society. Inspirational leadership makes all of us dig deep into the innermost parts of our being to find the very best that lies there and makes it available to others and ourselves. This, in my view, is what great leadership is all about.

The stories I have told in my book show that Mr Mandela inspires the political leader as he does the boxer and the medical doctor; the footballer as much as the pupil and the government bureaucrat; the social activist and the prisoner; a neighbour, a religious leader, a farmer; the artist, the intellectual, the worker in an oil company; the businessman, the street vendor, the widow, the orphan. Through these stories told by ordinary men and women who have been impacted by Madiba’s leadership, I am trying to invite others to reflect on, and perhaps attempt to practice, some of the key qualities of great leadership. The following are the ten key leadership lessons I have distilled from the Mandela stories.

TEN WAYS TO LEAD LIKE MADIBA

1. Cultivate a deep sense of awe for human beings:

Why?
Leadership is about people, and every single person matters.

How can I learn to do this?
Train yourself to treat everyone you come across with utmost respect and honour. Attend to each person as if they are the only ones that exist and matter at that moment.

2. Allow yourself to be inspired by the giftedness of other people:

Why?
For you to be able to inspire other people, you must have sources of inspiration for yourself. Leaders who do not have clear sources of inspiration often fail to inspire others, their organisations and communities.

How can I learn to do this?
Practice to recognise and acknowledge the giftedness of other people. Learn to appreciate the beauty of nature and human genius.

3. Grow your courage:

Why?
Great Leaders have courage. Courage does not mean absence of fear.

How can I learn to do this?
Learn to recognise your fears. This means facing the harsh or brutal realities of your situation and, nevertheless, choosing to follow what you think is the morally right course of action.

4. Lead by example. Where necessary, use words:

Why?
Great leaders have always led by example. People get inspired by and trust those who lead by example. Those who speak very well sometimes impress people. However, those who live by what they believe in always inspire others.

How can I learn to do this?
Do not ask of others what you are not ready to do yourself. At the end of each day, ask yourself how you are working to bridge the gap between your words and your actions. Aim to make the gap narrower each brand new day.

5. Create your own brand of leadership:

Why?
As a leader, your name must symbolise and be associated with a set of values. This is what will make you most effective. All great leaders, while being inspired by others, did it their own way.

How can I learn to do this?
On a daily basis, make an evaluation of how your values are aligned to your words and actions. Consistently try to gauge the kind of impact you have on other people. If it is positive, do what you can to grow and consolidate that. If negative, find ways to adapt or discard it. There is a leadership style and practice that can only be performed best by you. Do it your own way.

6. Practice humility:

Why?
Great leaders practice humility. Humility is the ability to acknowledge one’s limitations and failings. Humility will attract people to you. Arrogance will not.

How can I learn to do this?
When you make a mistake, do not shy away from admitting that you are wrong. Do not see the world through the lenses of your title in society. Simply see yourself as a human being.

7. Learn to live with the Madiba Paradox:

Why?
Life is a mixture of hope and hopelessness, joy and pain, success and failure, vision and disillusionment. You as a leader have the task of helping others to live successfully with these apparent contradictions.

How can I learn to do this?
Learn to live the moment. Learn to live each day as if it was your last opportunity. Learn to live with the paradox of confronting each situation without losing focus on the great opportunity that lies ahead. As a leader, train yourself to be a dealer in hope.

8. Surprise your opponents by believing in them:

Why?
There will always be people who disagree with your leadership style and what you do. Recognising and believing in the good side of everyone around you will win you friends. When you recognise the giftedness of those who consider themselves your enemies, quite often you disarm them. You win them to your side, provided this is done with honesty and goodwill. Do it for others.

How can I learn to do this?
You must make effort to identify and acknowledge, privately and publicly, what is praiseworthy in those who oppose you.

9. Celebrate life:

Why?
Celebrating the achievements of the individuals and groups you are leading generates inspiration and invites people to achieve even more. Achievements are not usually an end in themselves. They are often a sign that we are moving closer to the kind of life we ought to live. Achievements symbolise our hope in the attainment of a better and happier future.

How can I learn to do this?
Celebrate every positive step that an individual or a group of individuals you are leading makes. As a leader, you must create and participate in the practices and ceremonies that honour the life of the people you are privileged to serve.

10. Know when and how to make yourself replaceable:

Why?
Great leaders know how to move themselves from centre stage. They know when it is time to go so that their legacy lives on.

How can I learn to do this?
Prepare for the time when you will leave office. Allow other people to emerge as
your potential successors. Learn to be happy when those you are leading show signs that they will be better leaders than yourself. They are part of the fruits of your labour.

Conclusion

One of the greatest lessons we can learn from athletes and artists is that what we see them displaying on the pitch or stage, is more often than not, a product of many years of repeated practice. They invest more time practicing than performing. It is the same for the habits that make great leaders. They are a result of years of practicing the beliefs and actions of the leaders that inspire them. Acquiring the practices, mental and spiritual discipline that will enable us truly serve others comes from choosing, on a daily basis, to make small and yet incremental improvements in the way we relate with other people. This is also known as Kaizen in Japanese culture; and it means “…constant revision, upgrading and improvement of the status quo – progressing little by little…” If there is anything that distinguishes Mandela from other leaders, it is the fact that he made special effort to live by what he believed in. My guess is that this is what all of us are called to become; especially now that he has passed-on.

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