Leadership Renewal: From Good to Great

By Susan Collin Marks (Summer of Peace Wisdom Council) Senior Vice President, Search for Common Ground - a version of this article was first published on Forbes.com in April 2013

If you ever need to be reminded of the power of the human spirit, stand outside Nelson Mandela’s 6 x 9 foot cell on Robben Island, the desolate prison where he was the highest security prisoner of South Africa’s apartheid regime.  This island prison sits just seven tantalizing miles off beautiful Cape Town in the cold green Atlantic Ocean.  Imagine the heat in the summer, the bitter cold in the winter, and Mandela going out to quarry stone, the burning white light reflecting off the limestone permanently and deeply injuring his sight.  Remember that he was there for 18 long years, with another nine ahead of him in various prisons on the mainland.

Then see him on February 2, 1990 as I saw him – with eighty thousand other people who  gathered in the city square of Cape Town to celebrate and welcome and thank him on the day he was released.  We didn’t know who he would be or what he would look like, because South African law prevented the dissemination of any information about people the regime called “political prisoners.”  We waited all day in the hot sun, and then, there he was, a tall, strong, smiling, laughing, Xhosa man, eyes dancing, and we shouted and sang and danced our adulation and love.

We were mesmerized, ecstatic, confounded.  He had been a militant when he was arrested at the age of 44.   Now, at 71, he stood before us and dazzled us with his vision of a future where all South Africans, black and white, would live equally in their homeland.  His warmth and spirit settled in us, seeping into our bones and hearts.   The firebrand had come home to his wise elder self, and now he was going to take the rest of us home to the “new South Africa” with him.

He stepped into the Presidency of South Africa in May 1994, but his exercise of great leadership had begun long before. Until he was imprisoned, he was a renowned ANC leader.  In prison, he was appointed as one of the four members of the “High Organ” of ANC prisoners; he chose to learn Afrikaans, the language of his jailers, as a way of reaching out to them (think Gandhi and Martin Luther King, both determined to change the hearts and minds of their oppressors); and he established the “University of Robben Island” at which prisoners taught each other what they knew.  Later, when he was offered his freedom provided he “unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon,” Mandela said no, instead releasing a statement through his daughter Zindzi: “What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”

Nelson Mandela embodies the core elements of great leadership, even as he remains a fully human character with flaws and shadows. And he illustrates a profound truth, that we are great not despite our failings, but including them. We cannot pretend to be someone other than who we are, and much of the controlling, rigid leadership we see in the world today is armour against a sense of failure and weakness. His authenticity teaches us, he doesn’t try to be someone else, and he has the emotional intelligence to know who he is. Despite his famous hot temper, he was compassionate and empathetic towards those who imprisoned him, even as he lamented his inability to have a good relationship with some of his family. He is a leader for the whole, never swerving from his vision of a rainbow South Africa. At the same time he is a problem solver, with a pragmatism built on core values that translate into a deeply held personal and professional ethical framework.  He is inspired by a purpose that is bigger than himself and his presence, voice and discipline to inspire others to be better than they ever imagined.

Add to this list patience, perseverance, courage.  As we seek for clues about what happened to Nelson Mandela, how he became so much, we might ponder his favourite poem,Invictus, by the Victorian English poet William Ernest Henley, and the lines that particularly sustained him during 27 years in prison:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Mandela understood that life will throw many things at us, and it is up to us how we respond.  He knew the power of forgiveness and took tea with Betsie Verwoerd, widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.  He learned that love is the greatest power in the universe, and invited his prison warders to his inauguration as the first democratic President of South Africa.  He treated everyone with the same respect, whatever their station in life.  He taught us how to live with ourselves, and with each other, embracing our common humanity.  I give thanks for the privilege of standing in his shadow that day in Cape Town when he came back to us, and showed us how to step into the new democratic future that, together, we would all create.

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This article appears in: 2013 Catalyst - Issue 13