Posted on 28 July 2008
Sometimes surprising lessons from the life of a great African leader
We are pleased today to welcome a new author to Slow Leadership. Nina Simosko brings both a fresh sets of insights and strong practical experience to her writing and we are delighted to have her as part of the Slow Leadership team.
A recent Time interview with Nelson Mandela provides an open-minded and insightful view of leadership from someone who has both known great power and also been bereft of influence at different times in his 90 years. His advice for leaders is practical, outcome-oriented and courageous. Be sure to take the time to read the article in full as it provides an excellent primer for aspiring leaders and a unique vision for the way leadership can transform lives (and whole countries).
Mandela’s eight lessons are not always what you might expect:
1. Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it. Most leaders have faced down fear, but it is during times of stress that the mettle of leadership is tested. This means maintaining the momentum in tough times; or, as Mandela explains, sometimes you must “put up a front.”
2. Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind. Mandela focused on a principle objective and employed any and all tactics required to achieve it. However, he always ensured that he brought his support base along with him. To achieve great things, it takes a village. As Richard Stengel writes in the Time article:
“He’s a historical man,” says Cyril Ramaphosa, former Secretary General of the African National Congress. “He was thinking way ahead of us. He has posterity in mind: How will they view what we’ve done?” Prison gave him the ability to take the long view. It had to; there was no other view possible. He was thinking in terms of not days and weeks but decades. He knew history was on his side, that the result was inevitable; it was just a question of how soon and how it would be achieved. “Things will be better in the long run,” he sometimes said. He always played for the long run.
3. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front. Be sure to read Mandela’s analogy on this point. While it appears contradictory, you will smile at the wisdom. Remember that leaders can actively assist in the growth of their supporters/teams. Like a herd of cattle, sometimes you can only point them in the right direction from behind.
4. Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport. Whether you are fighting against or negotiating with an opponent, your destiny is entwined. Finding a common ground for conversation, like sport, allows you a step inside another’s world view — and if you have to focus on one thing, make sure it is communication. It is the door to opportunity. Those that I know who have been in business for many years consistently say that communication is the one thing they wish that they themselves and those around them were better at.
5. Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer. Mandela understood that “people act in their own interest,” and his approach to dealing with those he did not trust was to bring them into his confidence and neutralize them with charm. But should a crisis ensue, remember the STOP technique to help guide your decisions:
- Make the story your own. Don’t leave it to others to tell what’s happening.
- Set your own timeframe and make timeliness a critical part of your actions.
- Stay objective. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t speculate or make assumptions. Find the facts.
- Sometimes a crisis needs the help of a professional. Reach out to those you trust.
6. Appearances matter — and remember to smile. Our personal iconographies are important: the way that we carry ourselves, the way we walk into a room, the manner with which we greet people and, of course, the clothes that we wear all tell a story. Mandela’s smile symbolized an inclusive, patient yet determined leader. Great things can be achieved with a little grace.
7. Nothing is black or white. As leaders we are often presented with two options — to decide one way or another. Mandela often asked “Why not both?” Again, the focus must remain on the outcome, not the tactics. If a choice has to be made, choose the most urgent of the issues.
8. Quitting is leading too. Not all of our decisions or initiatives will be successful. Leaders must make the difficult decision to cancel or back away from poorly performing projects. Mandela also clearly retired as a way to establish a precedent across Africa — staying long enough to set the course, but not staying on to “steer the ship.” Sometimes leaders must concede to win. Taking one step back may just be the fastest way to your desired goal.