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Mandela’s Legacy [Blog]

Mandela3Though we mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, we celebrate his remarkable legacy and achievements which are sure to live on for many decades to come. Whilst many of us will never face the challenges that he encountered, there is still much that can be learned from the life and achievements of this extraordinary leader.

When I think about the life of Nelson Mandela as it relates to business, there are three core lessons that immediately come to mind that all executives can benefit from in navigating through the complexities of leadership in the 21st century.

Become the master of your own destiny

Mandela experienced much adversity and hardship in his lifetime. He is well-known for having been imprisoned in South Africa for many years after being convicted of planning acts of sabotage against the South African state in a bid to fight for racial equality. During his time in jail he was engaged in hard labour, punishment designed to break his spirit.

One of Mandela’s most extraordinary attributes was his ability, time after time, to accept responsibility for his actions and appreciate the power of choice. When he was captured in 1962, there was much speculation about who revealed his whereabouts to police; it was Mandela that attributed his capture not to his own enemies but in his own failure to adequately conceal his location. In psychology this is referred to as “locus of control”, the extent to which individuals feel that they can control what happens in their life. Individuals with an internal locus of control, like Nelson Mandela, believe that events in their life are the outcome of their own decisions and actions.

With the many challenges faced in organisations today, such as significant changes, mergers, restructures, downsizing, economic hardship and competition, it is critical that senior leaders have the capacity to accept their role in driving business outcomes and ability to respond to changing externalities. In order to successfully navigate these situations, managers need to take responsibility for their choices, focus on what they can control and refrain from externalising blame for mistakes and failures.

Remain calm and rational in the face of challenge and hardship

Not only did Nelson Mandela survive some extremely challenging circumstances, but throughout his life he successfully approached the situations he found himself in with a calm and rational demeanour.

One of the most important and difficult requirements of the modern leader is to be able to deal with change, complexity and ambiguity. More and more, we see leaders becoming vulnerable to considerable levels of stress and subsequent illness as they try to do cope with highly volatile organisational environments by working harder and longer. In order to be successful, managers and leaders need to be able to manage difficult situations without becoming worried, fearful or anxious. This often requires an ability to be objective, step outside of the problem, and assess problems logically and rationally in order to devise a solution.

Nelson Mandela was rarely angry or bitter. He wasn’t interested in seeking revenge and he focussed on the positive. One could easily have been consumed with negative emotions after the experiences he had in his life. Successful managers and leaders can process the challenges they face, and learn to positively reframe negative situations into positive challenges and opportunities for growth and development. This will ultimately result in gaining the respect of others, and maintaining good psychological health.

Learn to bring people together and manage diversity

In today’s global economy, organisations are increasingly faced with situations that require bringing people together from different social and organisational cultures, with different values, beliefs, philosophies, traditions, policies and ways of working.

Nelson Mandela once said, “I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent”. He appreciated that we can achieve a lot more by investing our energy in working together to solve problems, rather than maintaining our distance and differences. It was his passion and determination to realise this vision that provided great strength in continuing the fight for equality, and indeed inspiring many to join him on this journey. Extraordinarily, when Mandela became President, he continued to fight for his beliefs and treat everyone fairly, equally and with respect; in his political party he employed both his followers and his oppressors.

Successful managers and leaders have the power to inspire others as Mandela did; they respect the input of all, bringing people together and treating them with respect, and providing equal opportunity for collaboration and input. Such leaders understand how to establish a vision that will be relevant and meaningful to all members of the organisation, and how to help each individual to understand how they will contribute to realising that vision.

There are many things that we can learn from the life and work of Nelson Mandela of which these are just a few.

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TMS Consulting