News: reflections on Nelson Mandela by Jackee Holder

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 Jackee Holder. (See also leadership coach Rachel Ellison’s reflections and Brian Bacon’s and the January/February issue of Coaching at Work magazine for other contributors’ comments)

Lessons learned from Mandela

By leadership coach Jackee Holder

Born in 1918, Madiba Mandela both lived through and survived the tortuous conditions of imprisonment and solitary confinement on Robben Island.

What was it about this man and his life that following his release in 1990 allowed him to flourish and grow beyond the conditions of his past imprisonment to become the first black president of the previously apartheid regime of South Africa and one of the world greatest leaders?

Leadership is possible regardless of your background. Mandela lived and modelled that leadership on all levels is possible regardless of your race, class, social or economic background. He proved beyond a doubt that it is who you are and who you become and not where you come from that determines the kind of leader and human being you evolve into.

Personally for me as an executive coach who works at board level when I look at Mandela I see the face of my own father and I’m reminded of how far that walk to freedom has been globally for Africans from across the diaspora.

Mandela is a blazing reminder of the importance of leadership at every level of society from the boardroom to the shop floor. His leadership has left us a legacy of lessons and wisdoms. Here are a few of my personal reflections on lessons learned from Mandela’s leadership.

Revenge or Reconciliation?

Mandela could have gone either way and it would have understandable to a certain extent if the first way had been his choice. But herein lies the first of many lessons learned from Mandela’s leadership. His leadership model demonstrated for the world to witness, the enormous healing potential of reconciliation.

He played out the steps of reconciliation, which is an emotionally charged concept in one of the most complex of human issues, race and oppression in full view of a global audience. Here was the ultimate lesson of putting aside past personal injustices for the bigger vision, the fight for equality that went far and beyond what could have been imagined and led to the subsequent shifts that eventually changed the political landscape of South Africa. His leadership showed how the personal is political and the political is personal.

Compassionate Communication

Mandela’s leadership toolkit was awash with the kinds of communication skills that make you not just a good leader but a great leader. His ability to be empathetic, to forgive his oppressors, his tenacity and determination to understand them and to feel what it was like standing in their shoes was remarkable. It takes a bigger man to go stand in the shoes of others who have treated you in the manner Mandela had been, but he did.

Leaders benefit from these emotionally intelligent communication skills that create generative conversations particularly in situations when locked in conflict or in dialogue with team members, stakeholders or funders who may have a different point of view or position. Standing in another person’s shoes enables leaders to activate other essential leadership qualities like compassion, which many report Mandela as possessing in huge quantities.

Leadership modelling

In true NLP terms Mandela did model a number of exemplary communication and leadership skills. There are many examples of his ability to give you his full attention in a manner that was natural and wholehearted. He was what I would describe when training coaches and leaders an exquisite listener.

Perhaps fuelled by those years of solitary confinement and the accompanying silence grew Mandela’s spaciousness for listening and in turn being listened to. There was the true story of Mandela’s meeting with former UK prime minister Maggie Thatcher who apparently listened to Mandela for 50 minutes without interrupting.

Too often lip service is paid on leadership programmes to soft skills like listening skills and the skills needed to cultivate this skill. Listening is one of the most under-utilised communication languages yet it is one of the most valuable resources on the leadership journey.

These combined skills developed Mandela’s charismatic leadership, his ability to establish rapport and to have one of the greatest followings ever in modern history.

Embodying resilience

Mandela’s leadership journey charted diverse and often opposing political approaches showing a flexibility and willingness to shift views and ideologies in his style and approach over time. His leadership journey involved a gradual shift in leadership positions from revolutionary to reconciliation.

This shift anchored and broke open from a position of strength the ultimate resilience that Nelson developed and deepened into that fuelled his ultimate ability to transcend his past and move to a new place of dialogue that was required of his leadership on the world stage.

I coach many leaders and individuals who are operating and having to lead and survive in toxic systems. There have been unfortunately more than a few examples of individuals I coach who are clearly at the receiving end of unfair and unjust treatment. Nelson’s leadership lessons models how the cultivation of resilience can harvest and mine the worst and the best of our lived experiences.

Map this against the fact that one of the many injustices Mandela will have endured whilst serving his sentence on Robben island was to dig his own pit to be able to stand in and then be urinated on by the officers.

Forgiveness is a leadership strength and competency

One of the most important lessons Mandela’s leadership legacy offers is one of forgiveness. This is not a term you will often hear mentioned on the agenda of coaching and leadership programmes but as a concept is perhaps the greatest asset that Mandela had that contributed to his outstanding leadership journey. Without the lived experience of forgiveness it is unlikely we would have witnessed the achievements of this great man.

Imagine from a leadership perspective what transformational shifts and real conversations could be generated in organisations and boardrooms if we offer ourselves, and our work from a genuine state of forgiveness?

Forgiveness was perhaps the greatest act of setting Mandela free from his own prison and as a leadership tool has the potency to activate the greatest transformation in the most difficult situations and complex dialogues. This is the ultimate leadership work that has to be applied from the inside out. It clears out the mental and emotional baggage both psychological and emotional that gets in the way of leaders operating from their best resourceful state.

Diversity matters

I remember the exact moment of Mandela’s release in 1990. I was in a car driving with friends on the way to an event in South London. Everyone was fixated on the radio counting down the minutes to his release. Cars were tooting horns, strangers waving at each other and greeting each other. In that historic moment of his release on 1990 Mandela had done the most remarkable act of uniting opposing and diverse group world wide but he had not done this alone.

What is your capacity to be a leader who works across different races, cultures and groups? Are you even aware of those differences? Are you in touch with the impact of personal or institutional discrimination? How aware are you of the experiences of others whose worlds and lived experiences differ from yours in terms of race, class, gender, sexual orientation? Can leaders really afford to be colour-blind, to be non vocal when it comes to women’s issues, gay rights or disability? Mandela’s life was an example of a life dedicated to a cause and in Mandela’s case the cause of equality, which he made a life stand for.

His stand was a result of direct and personal experience of apartheid. Many leaders may not have had any resemblance to that experience so how can we truly awaken to the experiences of others that have? Mandela’s legacy invites leaders to ask and answer more of those difficult questions around diversity, difference and oppression and what’s happening in our own backyards. How can we become more inclusive as leaders? Often begs the question who am I excluding and why?

Authentic leadership stems from a cause we’re determined to make a stand for. Asking ourselves what do we stand for? Asking the question, ” What will I speak out against or speak up for? Where do we see injustices and oppression that needs to be brought to light? These are not easy questions to ask or indeed answer but nonetheless are the type of questions that determine the quality of emotionally resilient leadership.

Congruent presence

I never had the honour of meeting the great man personally but my partner has taken his photo officially on three occasions and described Mandela as having the kind of presence that stood shoulders above others.

Mandela was not a man without his flaws but it was the bringing together of both the flaws and the strengths that magnetised his aura and presence. It is from this place that vulnerability is alchemised into a strength.

Perhaps one of the biggest contributions we can bring to conversations, to relationships and to the leadership journey is that of our own unique, individual presence.

Presence is distinctive and I believe individually ordained. No two leaders have the same kind of presence. Presence has its own DNA. Are you aware or in touch with your own presence? How does your presence resonate or repel others? How can your presence become an authentic reflection of your leadership? Mandela had a leadership story. What’s yours?

Mandela owned that ability to integrate both his flaws and his strengths (probably both consciously or unconsciously), which in many respects gave him the confidence and congruency that leaders require to be authentic.

There is much to learn from Mandela who was at heart an emotional leader who was able to manage and leverage his emotions to effectively communicate, influence and persuade on a global platform.

In one of the many newspaper articles dedicated to his death ,Ahmed Kathrada who was imprisoned alongside Mandela in Robben Island wrote, “People willingly forgave his faults, but unlike outsiders – perhaps because they loved alongside him – they accepted he had them. ”

It is easy to shy away from leadership because of self-imposed expectations of perfection or a faultless personality. Neither is achievable or desirable for authentic leadership.

We need leaders who can hold the parallels of both being strong and being vulnerable. Who see vulnerability as a strength and not a weakness. The ability to embrace imperfections frees up leadership capabilities and encrypts emotional intelligence and resilience. It’s good to adopt the principle of progress not perfection (Williamson,R. 2011).

The world mourns the passing of a great leader but it is now our responsibility to awaken the leader within.

Perhaps these words by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu will inspire your commitment to developing yours and/or your clients’ leadership legacy, “He led, for the sake of the led, and not for what he got out of it.”
(The Times newspaper, 6 December, 2013).

Jackee Holder is a leadership coach working both at board level and with senior managers in a range of public and private sectors including the NHS and the Further Education sectors. She specialises in the importance and value of building a reflective practice for personal development and improved productivity.