Friday, December 15th 2017

Leadership: Business and Life Lessons from Nelson Mandela

January 30th, 2014 in Leadership by

The wheels of American Airlines Flight 6447, the plane I was aboard, touched down in Johannesburg, South Africa on Saturday, December 7th — two days after President Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95.  As my pastor has since assured me, this was divine destiny: to be in that country, at that time.  It was my first trip to the Motherland, and as I took my first steps on Africa’s hallowed ground, I was anxious about what I might see and experience.


To be sure, Johannesburg (“Joburg,” as South Africans affectionately call it) defies the stereotypical images perpetuated by American media.  Little is “Third World” about this great city.  With a population of more than 3 million, it has more people living in its city limits than the number of people living in my current home of Chicago.  The district we stayed in, Sandton, is a bustling, modern mix of business offices, shopping malls and upscale hotels.  It is the neighborhood where Oprah and President Obama stay when they visit Johannesburg.

President Mandela lived a couple of miles away from Sandton in an elegant suburb called Houghton.  The neighborhood reminded me of driving down the best-manicured streets of Kenwood-Hyde Park in Chicago or Bel Air in Los Angeles.  Huge houses are protected by large fences, walls and gates.  A security guard stood on the red brick sidewalk leading to the golden-walled home that Mandela lived in until he passed.  What was most striking about Mandela’s house was the dense, 6-foot wall of flowers that surrounded it (pic above).  The rows of flowers had been there for months — repeatedly replenished by admirers of “Madiba” (as South Africans call him) since he had fallen gravely ill.

The people of South Africa, indeed the people of the world, love Nelson Mandela.  The current of that love washed over me like a spiritual tsunami, as I stood not too many steps from his front door.  And as I spent the next several days with South Africa’s people, I learned a lot about why Mandela was so beloved as a leader.  Here, I share five attributes, or lessons, that made his leadership style so irresistible and effective.

1. Inclusiveness:  Leadership succeeds best when it is inclusive and brings together the perspectives, skills and strength of others around you to create greater impact.  Mandela didn’t necessarily start out as an ideally inclusive leader, but over time he became a master of inclusion.  No idea, no person was ignored or denied a voice — even the ideas and perspectives of those that oppressed him and his people.  This understanding of the power of inclusion is unfortunately lost on so many American leaders, particularly American business leaders, who have long limited their spheres of power to a select few.  The result is a business world, and an economy, weaker than it could be.  As Mandela said: “Becoming a great leader involves more than developing skills and achieving positions of influence. At heart it involves a developmental journey … the journey is characterized by an expanding sense of identity – from me, to us, to all of us.”

2. Suppressed Ego: Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task, relationship or business is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make. But good leaders are defined as much by what they choose not to do, as by what they do.  Mandela could easily have adopted a policy of retribution upon his release from prison.  As president he could have encouraged millions of black South Africans to turn their hurt into acts of hatred.  In other words, he could have borrowed from the example set by leaders of some other African nations, where violence and war fester to this day.  He could have succumbed to an ego, as too many American business leaders do, that says, “be first, be richest, and be most powerful, despite the cost to employees and families.”  Mandela was bigger than that.  He knew what the greatest of leaders know: Ego is more than a characteristic of one’s personality, it is a curse to effective leadership.

3. Presence & Appearance: Who will ever forget Mandela’s beautiful smile?  Through that smile he projected a warmth, empathy and caring sensibility that endeared him to anyone that encountered it.  It was a natural smile, but it was also purposeful.  Look at pictures of Mandela in his youth, before he was imprisoned.  The smile during those years was not nearly as ubiquitous.  The irony is that one would think Mandela had less reason to smile after 27 years of unjust imprisonment.  But as he said, he “matured” in prison.  He learned the power of his demeanor — that by walking upright and proudly, rather than with a bowed back, other inmates who saw him were emboldened in their struggle to endure incarceration.  Mandela’s post-prison smile was designed to help give us hope and engender peace.  It was as essential to his appearance as his presidential suits or the colorful president-emeritus shirts that helped portray him as South Africa’s joyous grandfather of peace.  In business, executive presence matters too.  An impeccable suit, a firm handshake, and indeed an expressive smile will always serve a leader well.  I’m reminded of the gracious manner in which former Citigroup Chairman Dick Parsons always greets me.  It’s the same disarming way he greets former business foe Carl Icahn.  Great leaders understand the power of presence.

4. Pursuit of Wisdom:  Getting a good education goes without saying.  Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  But once adorned with degrees, a successful leader’s learning doesn’t stop.  One’s bounty of knowledge, and ultimately wisdom, are what fortify a leader to lead well.  Some leaders think they are as smart as they need to be, but that is a dangerous view.  Learning is what gives a leader his or her edge.  Mandela was devoted to learning the habits and language of Afrikaaners, the rulers of the Apartheid regime, because he wanted to understand the Afrikaaner’s world view.  That knowledge made him a better negotiator and a better leader.  Business leaders too must be constantly learning, especially from their failures.  After all, as Mandela taught us, from failure comes true wisdom.

5. Vision: Great leaders are almost always visionaries.  They think big and swing high.  They have the ability to look beyond the short term.  Had Mandela not been able to see the future, South Africa might still not be free.  Today’s executive leaders, driven by stock market gyrations, often look quarter to quarter.  While that might be necessary, it cannot be the only line of sight.  Mandela thought about life decades in the future — a peaceful future where black and white South Africans lived together in harmony.

Mandela’s vision of a peaceful and equitable South Africa isn’t fully realized yet.  On my visit, I saw that many black South Africans still live in dilapidated shacks in townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg and other city centers.  Black unemployment is high and black wages are subpar.  But there is progress and hope.  I saw it on the streets of Soweto and on the smiles of its people.  They were smiles that signified the hope and vision of a beloved leader, passed but never gone.