Thursday, 2 September 2010

Mandela and leadership: Leading from the deck & leading from behind

One of the greatest leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela is that you can lead from the front or the back; and that the dynamic leader frequently alternates between the two.

At times the leader steps boldly to the front, setting the pace and spearheading decisions on critical and urgent issues facing the organisation. At other times, the leader opts for a more recessed position, providing a framework or an anchor that gives strength in the midst of turbulence.

During his long journey of social and political commitment, Nelson Mandela at times led as the captain on the deck, so to speak. At other times his leadership role was a background role, much more in line with the notion of a leader-filled society. Nelson Mandela's leadership style, and the approaches within that, has much to teach us. Here is a schematic view of how he alternated between the two leadership approaches:

Relevant period or initiative
Leadership approach
Defiance Campaign
Leading from the front
Rivonia Trial
Leading from the front
Internment on Robben Island & the period of armed struggle
Leading from behind
Leading from the front
Constitutional negotiations
Leading from behind
New democracy: Reconciliation
Leading from the front
New democracy: delivery and redress
Leading from behind
Eschewing a second term (as president of S.A.)
Leading from behind
Decision to retire (from active public role)
Leading from behind

During the Defiance Campaign, Nelson Mandela occupied the decidedly upfront role of Volunteer in Chief.

At the Rivonia trial, Mandela led from the front. Faced with the possibility of a death sentence in the context of a hostile courtroom and an unfavourable legal system, the trialists took a courageous and firm stand, based on a belief in justice. Nelson Mandela played the central role in forging that stand – cementing his reputation as a forceful leader in the face of adversity and a fearless campaigner for justice. In his speech from the dock (in 1964) he famously said that the ideal of a democratic society was one for which he was “…. prepared to die”.

Later while in prison serving a life sentence, Mandela appeared to understand that the leadership of others would be foregrounded. Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo, for example, took up central leadership roles and Mandela regularly deferred to them on many questions facing the organisation. In prison, Mandela advised the other ANC leaders that they were inmates who should view themselves as political prisoners rather than leaders. This meant accepting the limitations on the role they could play – and also, critically, embracing the reality that political prisoners could not and should not engage in negotiations. Of course Mandela remained a leader and a symbolic force, but in the armed struggle context, he was not central (in the same way as before) in the day to day life of the movement.

Emerging from prison into the pre-democracy negotiations, he again stepped into the forefront, leading from the front. In the negotiations, and the period immediately thereafter, he was at the cutting edge.

Mandela very early on began to step aside from part of his presidential roles to allow Mbeki to become prominent. He skilfully prepared the public and the world for the reality of a democratic South Africa led by someone other than himself.

As leaders such as Mandela have shown, through leading from a position within the ranks, the leader can work more intensively and purposefully on the ethos, on general practice and on values. He or she can deepen the contribution to these aspects, in many cases a process begun but sometimes not consolidated when a leader is totally absorbed in the cut and thrust. From the rear vantage point, the leader has the space to elaborate certain ideas and to think about how he or she might institutionalise values. From that background position, he or she can provide the grounding and depth that nutures leadership and builds astuteness at all levels, thus promoting organisational sustainability.

In practice, leading from behind does not necessarily mean a leader has more time at their disposal, opts for a less intensive role or is retreating from responsibilities. The pressures and demands on time may be as great. However, because the leader that operates from the background is somewhat removed from the more reactive space, she has room to apply herself to broader questions – and to prioritise what is important (but perhaps less urgent) over crises and immediate pressures.

As Linda Hill has pointed out, Nelson Mandela has explicitly endorsed leading from behind and has done so through drawing parallels with how the shepherd handles the sheep in his care. In his autobiography, Mandela noted that the shepherd “stays behind the flock” steering them from behind. In this piece, I continue my theme of leadership lessons from the great man; I show how Mandela has used this leadership mode in conjunction with the more conventional “leading from the front,” depending on the requirements of particular situations.

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