Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Mandela: leadership lessons from the great man

Today is a good day to honour Mandela’s leadership and to draw out some salient lessons from his life.

When we consider the Mandela saga, miracles as well as tough realities are key themes. Think about how people often refer to South Africa’s “miracle” – and how others (like me) counter that the transition from apartheid to democracy was actually the result of hard slog, commitment and careful processes. It also came as an aftermath to immense sacrifices by many. In the same way, when we speak of the “Madiba magic”, one can and must go beyond the surface to examine the concrete factors, traceable processes and actions that are in no way mystical. The cold stone floors of Robben Island also form a stark backdrop to the magic.

Interestingly, Mandela has never made a claim to being a god or infallible. He is a great leader, but equally human. He is a towering figure, but we can easily identify with many aspects that make up the man. He gets angry, he has soft spots (kids) and he has human failings. What is striking is the depth of his self-knowledge and self-acceptance as well as his strong but easygoing self-esteem. These qualities mean he is almost never over-defensive. Where he has erred (as in insufficiently tackling HIV/Aids when he was head of government), he forgives himself and moves on to the actions that will put things right. This trait also allowed him to quit formal political power early and (presently), as elder statesperson and “veteran,” to seek out reflective personal time.

The following are some key aspects of Mandela’s leadership:

1. He is empathetic. When he is interacting with people, he is “in the moment”. In the presence of ordinary folk, he seldom postures or plays a role and appears happy to simply focus on “taking in” their expressions, feelings and responses.

2. Mandela is strong on moral leadership. One gets the sense that, from his inner core, he is always seeking the light and always gravitating to do what is “right”. The ethical foundation to what he is doing or saying appears to be critically important to him: almost everything he says is subtly infused with this emphasis on the ethical. This may be the key to his aura.

3. The former President’s leadership style is characterised by consistency. Over his life, the context has changed many times and so have the issues; he has also deployed different strategies in response to such change. But at another level, he is stubbornly consistent. This consistency is linked to his strong moral and values-based approach. He has always espoused the same principles, including a people-based approach to leadership, constant communication, dialogue and a strong belief in basic human rights.

4. His life again proves that “taking a stand” is central to giving shape, form and strength to one’s leadership. The young Mandela worked out his position in relation to the fundamental issues and took stands on that. These stands form the bedrock of his leadership. In the sixties, Mandela consciously took part in illegal political activities. He also helped to launch an armed struggle to end the apartheid system. When he was arrested, he took a principled stand and spoke firmly and clearly about his convictions even though he knew such views had been criminalised by the regime. In the eighties, Mandela rebuffed government offers to release him on condition that he compromise his principles. Mandela always strongly advocated and upheld non-racialism and has always maintained that South Africa belongs to “all who live in it”. His convictions have many times moved him to anger and occasionally to lash out. On the other hand, his stands are generally articulated as inclusive and as an invitation to join him in working towards an ideal or objective. His stands are never inherently aggressive nor rallying points for the promotion of divisiveness and unnecessary conflict.

5. For Mandela, giving the lead (communicating his stand) and listening are two sides of the leadership coin. For him, listening to others is inherent in leadership. Given his experience, he reached a point where he could display astute leadership on his own (and there were certainly times that required that). However, from earliest times, his leadership was characterised by working in a team and listening to others. He thus always speaks of the “collective” and to this day swears by “consultation” with colleagues/comrades as a way of arriving at wise decisions.

6. Although in his younger years he broke up meetings of communists, the more seasoned Madiba demonstrates the power of openness in political leadership. It is not necessary to be factional, to close down debate, to label people as a way of avoiding a response to their arguments. Madiba is great because, even if someone is different (from another part of the democratic movement) or an opponent, he looks for ways to work together on a specific issue towards some positive social outcome. This makes him a smart negotiator, someone who is never too dogmatic and doctrinaire and one who honours others’ contribution to a cause.

The effective leader must complement his capabilities and expertise. Mandela brought this to the fore in the way he handled the management challenges of his job as the democratic nation’s first President. Seemingly, Mandela was aware that management or operational details did not sit well with him. During his presidency, he consequently gave the reigns of running government to then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki who combines leadership with strong management sense.

When the effective leader moves on, he or she does not leave behind a vacuum. One of the silliest titles for a book ever published was “When Mandela Goes”, with all the undertones it carried that South Africa would be leaderless and rudderless when Mandela left the Union Buildings hot seat. In reality, South Africa has no problem here: in the ANC and other parties, there are leaders aplenty. South Africa’s bigger challenge – by a long way – is at the level of management (referring inter alia to questions of follow through, holding people accountable and making things happen). There just appears to be insufficient management capability available to match the bold visions the country conjures up on every front. But that’s another story.

Mandela made his contribution to leadership development by illustrating that a true leader never creates a context in which other leaders wither and decline. Rather, other leaders flourish, grow in stature and excel in the presence and vicinity of the great leader.

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