Saturday, December 7, 2013

Nelson Mandela RIP

Nelson Mandela died the other day, may he rest in peace.

There are a great many people who will right much better eulogies of his life and accomplishment then I am able, so I will only add a few thoughts on some of the leadership lessons Mandela taught – and can still teach through the history of his life and struggle, and they are applicable in virtually any situation, especially any leadership position.

There are many lessons we can draw from his life, but I’m going to focus on just 4:

Don’t let power corrupt you.  This is one that the vast majority of people fail to understand.  As Lord Acton noted more than a century ago: ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

Mandela could have had absolute power, he could easily have held onto the Presidency of South Africa as long as he wanted.  But, as with a few other leaders before him, he drew a lesson from history, walked away, and set a precedent for the peaceful and regular transfer of power.

This is so much more difficult to do – in any setting – than is commonly appreciated.  The temptation is always present to hold on, and the justification is that ‘I am needed, they [whoever ‘they’ are] can’t survive without me.]  Whether we are leading a Scout troop, a small business, a large business or a government, it is easy to convince ourselves of how crucial ‘we’ are.  But good leadership is about making yourself ‘dispensable,’ about leading people to focus on the long-term goals, to train others to handle the problems, to lead – and to delegate, and to remove ourselves from the solution.  In the end good leaders make themselves unnecessary, and then freely cede power and position.

Focus on the big thing.  Mandela focused on the big thing: on freedom and equality and a better government.  He made the idea of equality and representative government the issue, not the past, not injuries already suffered, but the new country, the future, the Constitution.  Achieving your goals is difficult under the best of conditions; achieving them while letting your focus wander is impossible.  The leader has to stay focused, and he has to keep everyone else focused.  It is always a demanding task, and he performed it very well indeed.

Don’t hold a grudge.  This is the other side of the coin to maintaining focus.  It is very easy – far too easy – to turn any situation into a matter of feeling as if you are owed something for the past.  Even if you are, the truth is you will never get anywhere if that is your focus.  If you expect both restitution for previous grievances AND you expect to achieve something worthwhile, you are living in a dreamland.  No one has the energy and the necessary life-span to do both. You cannot look forward and backward at the same time, and holding a grudge is all about looking backward.

Smile. The simple truth is that no one can long endure working for any goal if they aren’t in some sense happy.  And that begins with the Boss.  If you show up at work, no matter what work is, and the Boss is always upset and angry and unhappy, in the end you will be too, and all of you will find it that much more difficult to reach your goals.

On the other hand, even under the worst of circumstances great leaders find ways to get folks to smile; it may be a grim smile, it may even be gallows humor, but they will find a way to get folks to smile.  Even in the worst of times, the pictures of Mandela showed his captivating smile.  Like Churchill in bombed out sections of London flashing his ‘V for Victory’ sign and his determined smile, there is more to be gained by a smile then a grimace.

There is much more, but those four points are enough for now.


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