John Menadue. Nelson Mandela’s leadership.

Oct 9, 2014

You might be interested in this repost. John Menadue.

In all the tributes and stories about Nelson Mandela, there was one that caught my attention. In his book ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ he said:

‘A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.’

What I think he was saying is that leadership is a set of activities in which the South African people as a group were persuaded to make necessary but difficult decisions and being courageous enough to pursue them until a resolution was found. It was a collective effort. There was no messiah out in front. They were in it together. Nelson Mandela suffered on Robben Island and the young activists were gunned down by white police in Soweto. The pain was shared.

Nelson Mandela was not about management – coping with complexity and maintaining equilibrium. For him, leadership was much more than that. It involving creating disequilibrium and forcing the South African people out of their comfort zone. He led South Africans until almost everyone believed that change was both necessary and possible. In the end it was change that almost everyone owned. It was as if in their final victory they could say to each other ‘we did it ourselves’. That was the inclusive type of leadership that he pursued.

Nelson Mandela showed that leadership is not the same as authority. After all you can’t exercise authority in prison for 27 years Authority is usually bestowed or is positional. It is not always earned. A good example is the Bishops in our churches, or the inherited presidency of such people as George Bush. Authority by itself is designed to keep the organisation or country on even keel. An authority figure observes the ceremonials. Such an authority figure usually discourages people who challenge or ask the hard questions. Authority figures like the group to be relaxed and comfortable.

True leadership is quite different as Nelson Mandela showed.

  • It encourages honest and hard questions. It helps the group to clarify its problems and the way to proceed – like addressing climate change in our time.
  • It is not naïve or dismissive of the problems and risks.
  • It is prepared to create disequilibrium knowing that people don’t change in comfort zones.
  • It doesn’t attempt to solve the group’s problems or make decisions ahead of the group. The nimble ones up front may set the pace, but a solution is only possible when the group as a whole catches up. And that takes time.
  • It doesn’t get lost in detail or attempt to micro-manage.
  • It recognizes that mistakes will be made and that remedial action will be necessary to get back on course.
  • Supporters must be honest and trust-worthy. Ciphers who cling to the old networks and clubs are no help.

Leadership is also not the same as charisma. Bin Laden had charisma, but he was mad.

Nelson Mandela gave us inspired leadership with few of the trappings of authority.

The most moving example for me of his leadership was the celebration of the victorious Springbok rugby world cup team in 1995. Standing with the South African captain, Francois Pienaar, he wore the Springbok jersey and cap. South African Rugby was at the core of apartheid with racially selected teams and refusal to play other teams that were racially integrated. At the world cup and with one gesture of reconciliation he cleansed South African rugby of its awful past. Few could do it with such simplicity and credibility. Words were not necessary. Or as Saint Francis put it “only use words as a last resort” Who could deny a man who sacrificed so much for racial equality?

It was leadership not authority that won the day. And a leadership that was prepared to forgive but never forget.

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