Lessons From Mandela

As this week of mourning for Mandela draws to a close and he is being laid to rest tomorrow, here are a a few vignettes from life of Nelson Mandela. These capture some examples of his greatness, particularly in the areas of leadership, forgiveness and reconciliation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu when asked by author John Carlin for one word to sum up Mandela replied: “Magnanimity”.
May we all strive to be a little more magnanimous in 2014.

Some lessons from Mandela – may he rest in peace.

  • Bill Clinton was said to have talked about how he had spent time with Mandela and observed that if he was bothered or angry about something he was very quickly able to move past this and not let it get in the way of the relationship with the other person. What was striking was Clinton’s reference to how disciplined Mandela was around managing his anger.
    All too often we let anger or annoyance consume us. We see it as a justified response, that we are driven to by the behaviour of others, rather than seeing it as something that we can choose to be disciplined around.
    Learning: How can we be better manage strong emotions, rather than acting on and expanding them, can we hold them briefly in our awareness and then let them go

  • Ferghal Purcell, manager of the Lough Erne Hotel in Fermanagh recounted on RTE Radio 1 last week his experience of Mandela in 1991. He was manager of a hotel in South Africa where the ANC came to negotiate with de Klerk and his team. For four or five days Purcell and his staff worked unobtrusively in the background looking after Mandela and his cabinet, to ensure as comfortable and smooth a stay as possible. On the last day, Mandela summoned him to his hotel room. He approached with some trepidation, fearing some cause for complaint. Instead he was met by Mandela and all his cabinet colleagues, each of whom Mandela invited personally to express their heartfelt thanks and appreciation for hosting them so well.
    It was impressive the effort he put into acknowledging people and service he could have taken for granted.

    Learning: How can we be more mindful of people in our lives at work, in our community that we take for granted and take the time to simply thank them for their support and contribution

  • During his long tenure in Robben Island prison Mandela came to realise that the best way to solve the conflict in South Africa was to engage with and educate himself about the white population. He set about learning Afrikaans, at the time seen as the ‘oppressors’ language, reading Afrikanner history and trying to build relationships with his jailers. In the long run, he achieved far greater victories through his ability to connect and respect rather than to fight and reject. Learning: How could we try and reach out and build and thus transform relationships with people we feel least drawn to and even somewhat threatened by?
  • In 1995 the rugby World Cup final was held in Johannesburg and won by the South African team, the Springboks, which were formerly one of the most hated symbols of apartheid. Mandela used the tournament as an opportunity to unite the nation in a common cause. His wise understanding of the power of gesture led to him attending the Final wearing the Springboks rugby shirt and cap with the number of the captain, Francois Pienaar, on the jersey. When he presented the cup to Pienaar, he said ‘”Thank you Francois for what you have done for our country”. The powerful impact of this simple generous action was illustrated in Pienaar’s response – “Mr President, thank you for what you have done for our country”.
    Learning: How can we find simple but powerful ways to be generous and inclusive to those we view as being ‘on the other side’?

To finish with a short quotation that summarises for me the essence of what Mandela stands for: his combination of humility and wisdom in stating: ‘One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others’