Nelson Mandela: Leadership & the Exercise of Power

Nelson MandelaThe passing of Nelson Mandela has sparked a lot of talk about what a leader he was. And, that he certainly was. But, there has also been a lot of blogging drawing parallels between his moral values and business leadership needs. Most of this diminishes Mandela’s true legacy to a white paper.
Mandela was sui generis, a person unique to himself. He lived outside history, all the while immersed in it. He designed and delivered himself while radicalism and revolution incarcerated him.

A Noble Heritage

Mandela was actually born into tribal royalty, a member of the Mandiba clan. He carried the heritage in his bearing - tall, handsome, and charming. It gave him an air of authority that he would minimize as self-confidence, but this allowed him to move comfortably among the multi-racial multi-cultural constituencies of South Africa. The noble bearing gave him carriage and comportment from a sense that everyone shared his fundamental moral values. He simply and absolutely knew change was inevitable.

Mandela was involved in activism well before WWII. He shaped and was shaped by apartheid and its tragic implications and public effects. He organized and re-organized opposition until he was imprisoned for treason. Surviving prostate cancer and tuberculosis – not to mention solitary confinement and hard labor, he was finally released in 1990.

In the 30+ years since, he has served as President of South Africa, shared a Nobel Peace Prize, traveled, taught, and retired into some confidence that reconciliation is his greatest achievement and legacy. Elegant and charming, educated and noble, he left his nation inspired by his passion and spirit.

Now, What in this Belongs to Business Leadership?

Mandela was a leader, and he did have a style. Most saints do. They are driven by vision and the assumption that the vision is right and fitting. To the extent that we can imitate that, all the better. However, his life provides no allegory for running a manufacturing plant, a contract pharmacy, a football team, or whatever business model you happen to be in.

Mandela is a model of persistence, courage, dignity, authority, and more – all qualities we would admire in a business leader. But, what arrogance it is to lump him into the leadership publishing market.

The Exercise of Power

What we certainly can learn and imitate is Mandela’s magnificent exercise of power. To quote another seminal leader, Vaclav Havel, “The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.”

Leadership – even business leadership – lies at this intersection. It differs from authority or position, which Mandela certainly had. It is not driven by money or intimidation. It is character or purpose-driven, the character he brought to his work, the character and behavior consistent with the character that leads. According to an Op Ed piece in the Washington Post, “he had the gift of making all those he met feel better about themselves.”

According to the man they call Mandiba, there is either hope in a situation, or there is not. You are united, or you are not. You forgive, or you do not. You are educated, or you are not. You are afraid, or you triumph over it. These are characteristics a business should exercise and can develop. It is either this leadership legacy, or it is not:

“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”“When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat.”“A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”“It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

So speaks his memory.