He was as human as the rest of us – discarded his first wife, made many decisions and actions that he no doubt regretted, was deeply disappointed in many things and people, but was a man of incredible strength and charisma. I loved how charmed he was by young women when he came out of prison, an old man – with dignity and affection. I met him shortly after he came out of prison – the company I worked for at the time, in Johannesburg, had worked very actively to support the campaign to legalise the ANC and for the release of Mandela and the other political prisoners, and he came to our head office to show his respects. I shook his hand – a very soft hand, to the touch. We had a crisis behind the scenes – a white young woman – seriously right-winger, had brought a hand gun to work – she was isolated and immobilised very quickly. She could have become a Wilkes-Booth, Oswald or a Nathuram Godse, or a Clive-Darby-Lewis. And I remember how the black women on staff all danced, ululated and clapped their hands – I don’t know how to ululate, but I danced and sang with them – what a magical time it was!
One must be careful not to place frail humans on impossible pedestals, but he certainly has become an icon of what is noble and honourable in humankind. This is what I wrote on Facebook last night, (and edited it a bit this morning) as my first reaction to the news that Nelson Mandela has passed. Later that night I watched a movie: “Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert.” Mukhtar was a Bedouin leader who had led a 20 year fight against Italian occupation of Libya before WWII, and was hanged in public. His persecutor was tried and imprisoned in 1955.
I have long ago given up wondering whether there is a design behind coincidences. I borrowed the movie from the library because (a) I have a client from the Middle East I’ve been working with very closely for the past 2 years, sharpening my interest in Islam and the region; (b) I like Anthony Quinn as an actor; and (c) if it involves Bedouin and the desert there will be scenes with galloping Arab horses. And so all those reasons faded into insignificance as I sat there, reflecting on Mukhtar, Mandela, King, Ghandi, and some of the heroes of my own history: De la Rey, (the Lion of the Western Transvaal), Jan Smuts, and a lone English woman, Emily Hobhouse. Repeatedly I returned to the same train of thoughts I’ve had about Mandela and leadership for so many years.
My primary question is this: Is it possible to become a great leader without that leadership having its roots in oppression? Had there been no racial discrimination in South Africa, who would Nelson Mandela have become? A persuasive successful advocate in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa, in Bloemfontein, or a successful small-town attorney close to his tribal roots, perhaps in Mthatha? And a more painful question that has haunted me all these years: Had Mandela not spent 27 years in prison, would he have become the compassionate, principled man we’ve seen since that February day in 1992?
All that time alone, in reflection, in study, in hard labour and deprivation, must have shaped the man. Clearly there was good raw material to work with, but those years did shape him. This is not to argue for imprisonment or isolation as a way of shaping character, but it is an extreme version of the multitude of stories of great prophets who go into the desert, or the mountains, by themselves, and who come back altered and enlightened ‘filled with the spirit’ I believe the Bible says in at least one instance. It is also a good argument for taking time out for personal reflection.
“Leadership” is a skill set that has been much in vogue for about the past 20 years. Many writers and analysts have tried their hand at defining leadership qualities and skills, and at least as many consultants and trainers have developed products and processes that can be used to train anyone willing to be trained, to become a leader. We’ve commoditized leadership.
I’ve trained hundreds of African managers in situational leadership skills – knowing your own personal style and then choosing which style is appropriate for a situation: Something like changing your outfit, depending on whether you’re going on safari in the Serengeti or tasting wine in the Cape wine lands, or perhaps shooting civilians in a shopping mall in Nairobi. We discussed role models representing different type of leadership. Mandela was of course always the icon of visionary leadership and we regularly listened to a poor quality recording of Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream” speech. It may be a good testament to my prowess as a trainer, and the quality of the people I had the good fortune to train, because I hear from many of them, still, via Facebook and LinkedIn. Most have had good success in their careers, with promotions, pay increases, opportunities to work in foreign lands, coming their way. However, my question remains unanswered.
And so Mandela’s passing calls me again, to reflect on leadership: what I believe it is, versus the packaged commodity it has become. It seems if one has had, or if one is struggling with, overcoming serious adversity, it can serve to develop you as a leader, or to catapult you into the role because no-one else had taken it on. However, I don’t believe it is the experience of deprivation, discrimination, oppression, or grief, itself that is the fuse that lights the leader within. I think it can be a catalyst though – in providing focus and creating passion.
In leadership training we usually do talk about the need for vision – being a visionary leader; and about passion. But, too often it is dealt with in a dispassionate list “let’s brainstorm all the qualities of a good leader”; and there it always is: Vision and passion. Often this discussion is preceded by a reflection exercise – thinking about a leader you admire and what it is you admire about them. Mandela’s name was always on the list.
I simply don’t believe we can all be leaders. Many of us don’t want to be. On the other hand, sometimes remarkable things happen and someone who is quiet, unassuming, usually in the background, comes to the fore in a time of crisis, and becomes the leader, in a particular situation. Something has triggered that person into stepping into that role: something that spoke to the core of her or him. You might even say it would be something that touched their soul. And, when the crisis is over, they return to who they were before. Except, of course, that the experience transforms them, as it does those of us who witnessed it.
Between them, Nelson Mandela and Omar Mukhtar are pulling me, today, to work harder at understanding what leadership really entails, so that I can be a better trainer tomorrow.
ADDENDUM Sat Dec 7, 2013
From Baz Edmeades on FB:
Mandela to his wife, while he was in prison: “Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundations of one’s spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”