One of the greatest leaders I think the world witnessed, during our lifetime at least, is Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela’s life story has long since become a legend, one that transcends borders, race, language or culture.
It would be absurd–let alone disrespectful to Mandela’s achievements–to suggest that the issues you and I face as a business leader are as grave as apartheid, or that the stresses you and I encounter can ever compare with his decades of imprisonment.
There are, however, three unique attributes Mandela demonstrated during his career that hold lessons for everyone who aspires to be a great leader.
In a 1985 speech to the nation, pro-apartheid President F. W. Botha offered Mandela freedom if he renounced violence and other illegal activity. The President tried to shift the blame for imprisonment to Mandela himself: after all, he was now free to go, provided he would be law abiding. Right then Mandela could have freed himself, at least from a jail cell, but he knew he could not free himself from his principles.
He did not fall for this transparent ploy however. Yes, he very much desired freedom after decades of hard labor and confinement in a small cell. But he also felt it would betray his principles, his leadership, and the ANC’s long struggle. Here is how Mandela replied, in part, to President Botha’s disingenuous offer:
“What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered if I must ask permission to live in an urban area? Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”
Mandela turned down Botha and opted to stay in his cold, dark prison cell — about 8 feet by 8 feet in size — and was prepared to serve the remainder of his life sentence. His principles and the cause in which he led took precedent even over relief from his pain or his human desires to be liberated.
This decision was enormously powerful since it greatly elevated his position as a leader of strength and principle and now the face of the ANC’s opposition.
Another example and demonstration of his attributes occurred shortly after Mandela became a free man but before he was elected President in 1994. The trigger was the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, a popular black leader fighting for equal rights. Hani was shot in cold blood by a right-wing white extremist when stepping out of his car.
The assassination ignited widespread fury and triggered huge demonstrations. Many blacks wanted revenge, and the atmosphere was ripe for looting, violence and mayhem. Recently out of prison, Mandela rose to the occasion and appealed for calm. Here is part of what he said:
“Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”
Mandela demonstrated the crucial attribute of calm and confidence, particularly in times of fear, strife and chaos. When the space shuttle explodes in the sky carrying the first teacher astronaut with children watching live from schools all over the country, or with a bullhorn on top of a pile of rubble from the destruction of two towers. That is when people need the calm confidence of a leader the most.
The third example I want to point out is when, in 1995, he visited the widow of the very man who was the main architect of the apartheid regime and in effect put him in prison. He demonstrated forgiveness and put the purpose of his cause above his own grievances and personal wounds.
He also rejoiced when the national rugby team Springboks won the world championship, even though this team had been a symbol of racism and Afrikaner power for decades. He proudly wore the team’s shirt during the championship match, waved his hands in support and signaled to the world at large that he truly supported a rainbow nation. Such leadership is as precious as it is rare.
In summary, I ask you to evaluate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 on how well you demonstrate the two prominent attributes of Lincoln:
And the three of Mandela:
3. Adherence to principles (even at personal sacrifice)
4. Calm in chaos
I suggest evaluating yourself, then asking a few members of your team to evaluate you on these 5 attributes. If you are too afraid to ask your leadership team (which kinda disqualifies you as a leader) then ask your spouse—they are always willing to be enthusiastic critics or let’s say coaches.
Hey, leadership is not easy and it demands substantial personal growth. So be willing to do the hard work necessary so you can be a great leader of men, women, and children. And don’t forget to tell all your overachiever friends, family and colleagues to share in your journey to becoming a great leader by also subscribing to this blog.
Of the 5 attributes, which do you value most in yourself and why? Share with us in the comments below!