News: reflecting on Nelson Mandela by Rachel Ellison

On 5 December, Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president who led the peaceful transition from white-only rule, died aged 95. As the world mourned, we asked how Mandela inspired you and what you think we can learn from him. Below are reflections from leadership coach Rachel Ellison. (See also leadership coach Jackee Holder’s reflections and Brian Bacon’s and the January/February issue of Coaching at Work magazine for other contributors’ comments)

Mandela – reflections on a leadership example and legacy

By leadership coach Rachel Ellison

Nelson Mandela’s friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu says of him: “Nelson Mandela was like a cut diamond. He emerged from 27 years in prison, a virtually flawless human being, with an extraordinary ability to forgive.”
From international leaders to the bloke in the corner shop, there is much we can, if we choose, learn from Mandela’s example. His example of leadership, statesmanship, how a child – albeit the son of a Thembu tribal chief one – from a little known village on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, can inspire and unite a nation of difference and divide. But also move multiple generations of men and women across the world, to action.
In his own words Mandela said: ‘I am not a perfect man. I am certainly not a saint. Unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.’
A feisty youth, almost certainly. But a humble and powerful mature adult. A man who ultimately chose peace over bitterness and encouraged nations to do the same.
Publically, Mandela seemed to exude a playful, cheering charisma. He must have had an almost unbreakable physical and emotional resilience.
The day after his death [06/12/13 digital issue: ‘A Giant Passes’], the Economist gives this analysis of some of Mandela’s leadership qualities:

• Mandela was a leader who feared nobody, debased himself before no one and never lost his sense of humour.

• More important for the future of his country was Mandela’s ability to think deeply, and to change his mind.

• He sought out a variety of opinions among those who, unlike himself, had been fortunate enough to roam the world and compare competing systems.

• Little short of miraculous, was the way in which Mandela engineered and oversaw South Africa’s transformation….into, at least in intent, a rainbow nation in which people, no matter what their colour, were entitled to be treated with respect.

• For all the humiliation he suffered at the hands of white racists before he was released in 1990, he was never animated by feelings of revenge. He was himself utterly without prejudice, which is why he became a symbol of tolerance and justice across the globe.

Mandela encouraged collective action. He said: ‘Know your history. You can’t be proud unless you know your history.’ For me that suggest the importance of knowing what informs you vision, your philosophy, your choices, your destination. The potential of self inquiry and self awareness. Or lack of it.
Former South African President P W de Klerk described Mandela’s personal presence as having an enormous ‘stature, both physical and political,’ which commanded the room. ‘He was a great unifier.’ I wonder if part of Mandela’s conscious way of being was to empathise and seek understanding from everyone’s perspective. An ability that gave him the power to influence and bring people together. To go forward together.

Asked for his reaction to Mandela’s passing, former US President Bill Clinton said:

‘We will remember him as a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries, was not just a political strategy but a way of life.’
The announcement, by the current South African president Jacob Zuma, of Nelson Mandela’s death at home, at the age of 95 on 5th December 2013, seemed mindfully choreographed. With deliberate intent to bring calm, stable leadership to a situation that it was feared could spark a hysterical, destabilising national reaction.
I noted the phraseology used by President Zuma in his speech:
‘This is the moment of our deepest sorrow. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Yet, what made Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.’
The nation’s greatest son. I thought he’d say ‘father.’ [He did in another part of the speech]. I reflect on the power of that word choice. I wonder if ‘son’ was chosen because it puts all of us in the frame. We’re all a son or daughter of somebody. Many of us have a long way to go before reaching 95 years old. And in that time, there is much we might yet achieve. This could another facet of Mandela’s greatest leadership legacy. Instead of thinking of him as a father – whose iconic role model status, and awesome achievements seem impossible to emulate – we are left considering him as a son. An invitation to consider ourselves as youngsters. An invitation to continue Nelson Mandela’s life’s work: his quest for equality, respect, peace and togetherness.

• Be humble
• Develop resilience
• Fear nobody, debase yourself before no one
• Keep your sense of humour.
• Know your history (what informs your vision, your philosophy, your choices, your destination)
• Develop personal presence, including a playful, cheering charisma
• Seek understanding from everyone’s perspective, seeking out a variety of opinions
• Be compassionate
• Be forgiving
• Abandon bitterness and embrace adversaries, as a way of life
• Unite
• Inspire

Rachel Ellison MBE is a leadership and executive coach

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