Summary: Leadership Lessons from living in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa.
It was March of 1995, after a 14 hour flight I had landed in Johannesburg, South Africa. I didn’t know much about South Africa except the hotel company I was working for was opening the first international hotel in post-apartheid South Africa. I knew Nelson Mandela was President and the country was in a period of transition. Nothing you read can actually prepare you for setting foot in a new continent and in a country determining it’s future. I have so many wonderful memories of my years in South Africa and a few harsh lessons of what the country and it’s people had endured.
These memories came flooding back in full force when I learned of Nelson “Mandiba” Mandela’s death. It wasn’t a surprise, he had been sick and was hospitalized. It still hit me hard. He was a remarkable person. Many of the stories you have already heard about how he spent 27 years in prison, was released to eventually become President is remarkable but nothing compared to the man himself. He affected me personally in many ways – in ways that were deep and personal as I was living in his country at the time.
My Leadership Lesson from Mandiba:
Anger is not effective. If anyone had a reason to be angry and bitter it was Mandela and his colleagues. However walking out of Robben Island, he was not angry – he was hopeful. For me this meant, anger serves no one. I do get angry – but not for long. I try to focus beyond today and look at the possibilities in the future.
Find the solution. He was determined to have a unified South Africa – a South Africa that didn’t focus on race, language, or color. He wanted one South Africa. He found ways to include everyone in what was happening, he found a solution that would help each person. No one is more or less human. He helped me see it was about the solution – doing what was right to get the best result.
Everyone matters. How easy it would have been to marginalize the “oppressors” and creators of apartheid – he didn’t. While making it clear what happened to his people and country was wrong – he included them in the future. We may not like everyone we work with or for – we can work with them and be respectful.
It’s about the people. While Mr. Mandela was willing to move forward, he understood the need of the people to heal from apartheid. He created the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which was a powerful means for people to be heard. A leader may be able to move forward and helping your people move forward is key. Don’t just say “the past is the past”, talk about and deal with it.
Humility. I remember hearing stories of how Mandiba would drive his security team crazy. While driving along the street, if he saw people walking or wanted to speak to them, he would jump out of the car or leave his security team. He always saw himself as a regular person with a message to share. His humility was his trade mark and so very genuine. How many times have we let our ego’s get in the way?
Presence. I remember standing in a ballroom of a hotel, we were there to hear a brief talk by Nelson Mandela. He walked into room and before saying anything – the room was completely silent, as if someone hit “mute” on conversation. He did this by his presence alone. Do we have a positive similar effect on our people? Does our presence command respect?
My years in South Africa, the lessons I learned, the people I have met, and the history I experienced can not be summed up in a brief article and all the words written and not written can not properly express how this country has affected me. It’s people and culture will always be in my heart.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika
(God Bless Africa)