Thursday 18 July 2013

Nelson Mandela :: Three simple lessons from Madiba to emulate at work

18th July was Nelson Mandela’s birthday and I wanted to write something different from my normal blog contributions in the hope that I could reveal some simple lessons from Madiba that even participants in the 'corporate rat race' could be inspired from and emulate easily. I have chosen to refer to him by his clan name of Madiba. There is no better tribute to a leader than to address him in a manner befitting his stature and humility.

He is the reason why I blog and why I invest a large portion of my time on developmental activities with others. What gives me purpose is the following that he outlined in his book 'Long Walk to Freedom' -- “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

For me he is not only an asset for South Africa but an asset for the world! I consider him as a personal hero; a symbol of peace and unity. I hope that observing his life's work might make the corporate world more 'humane'!
As he lies in his death-bed I wonder whether he has got an answer to one simple question that might be nagging him – “Did I complete my life’s work?” For me he did and I hope that the we keep striving at a personal level to keep his legacy going on even after his passing.

Lesson # 1 : People are capable of changing for the better
Madiba’s life story shows his transition from being a radical (who at one time espoused and positioned violence as a fair means to achieve freedom) to a pacifier who came out of prison (after twenty-seven years) to align with a non-violent and peaceful way for dismantling  apartheid.

I find the following by Richard Stengel (2008) as a powerful exposition of the change that occurred along the way -- “Ultimately, the key to understanding Mandela is those 27 years in prison. The man who walked onto Robben Island in 1964 was emotional, headstrong, easily stung. The man who emerged was balanced and disciplined. He is not and never has been introspective. I often asked him how the man who emerged from prison differed from the willful young man who had entered it. He hated this question. Finally, in exasperation one day, he said, "I came out mature." There is nothing so rare — or so valuable — as a mature man.”

I looked at this as a sign that people can grow and develop over time given the right circumstance and environment. How many times have I seen managers label individuals and their performance in a negative manner thereby rendering the individual as being incapable rather than someone needing assistance or guidance that could be channeled for positive change! I always start from the basis that people can change or be changed for the better and hence try a reconciliatory approach when dealing with a reportee who needs support in completing their organisational objectives.

Lesson # 2 : Sacrifice is needed when pursuing the right goals and objectives
My first exposure to Madiba was the first few years of his release from prison i.e. he early 90s when I lived in South Africa. I was always captivated to watch a man who gave twenty-seven years of his life in prison but walked out and extended an olive branch to those that kept him locked away from the world. To me it signified the ultimate sacrifice (and inherent ability to forgive) in support of one’s belief(s).

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die" (Long Walk to Freedom).

I have always advised people that achievement at work and in life will always come from sacrifice. Understand the same and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices if you feel strongly about a goal or objective at work or personal life. Many people talk about goals and dreams but never about what must be given up or foregone for achieving the same. Only sacrifice sets you apart from the rest. Even when you invest time you are reallocating a finite asset from one area to another (for e.g. this could mean less time with your family & friends!).

Madiba’s ability to sacrifice was also a benchmark for me whenever I was down or felt that the world was against me. I felt that my own 'suffering' or angst took on a different meaning when juxtaposed against another person’s suffering. As the saying goes "I felt sorry because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet.” You will feel much better and less burdened if you can give relative context to what you are really suffering or burdened with. One simple situation is where we watch others getting ahead of ourselves and are consumed with jealousy without realising that there may be others that look at you and also feel that you are ahead of them.

Lesson # 3 : Be inclusive and visible when dealing with others
I watched in astonishment as Madiba emerged from prison and sought forgiveness for the minority that had put laws in place to suppress the majority. He encouraged debate to ensure that South Africa would deliver a constitution that forged unity and equality amongst all. He gave many an opportunity to give input during the process. For me this is one of the most critical aspects of his leadership aura. By giving people say in a process you instill a sense of ownership and commitment to the process.

“One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others” (Long Walk to Freedom).

In the movie ‘Invictus’ there are many scenes where Madiba is shown taking carefully choreographed steps to send a clear message to white South Africans by supporting the national Rugby team (the Springboks). He knew that open support would ensure that the nation would rally around a common point and that sport could be the unifying glue at a very critical time in the history of South Africa (the Rugby World Cup was in 1995 just after the 1994 elections). At work also there are many people who are dissenters or devil’s advocates. Your aim should be to include them in all debates and not aim to nullify or marginalise such voices. It is these voices that will shape the best decisions and force you to question your beliefs and dogmas.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” (Long Walk to Freedom).
Many times people will not realise that they are being steered in a certain direction as Madiba would painstakingly hear all out and then set up an argument to ensure that people felt that it was their own thoughts that had been shared that had led to the decision or outcome. One of his quotes that outlines this strategy is “A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind” (Long Walk to Freedom).
I had the privilege of observing Madiba at Johannesburg International Airport more than a decade ago. Even then I was amazed by his ability to create an engaging environment with all that came within range of him. His presence soothes but it also reflects that he is acutely aware of the impact that his presence has on people and that his every small action/gesture is being watched and emulated by many. Each action he takes or does not take is critical to how people view him.

“Appearances matter — and remember to smile” (Long Walk to Freedom).

In conclusion, “Though we are approaching a world without Mandela, his lesson lives on in each of us. It lives on whenever we choose the transformative power of forgiveness, whenever we choose let go of our narratives about our past and chart a new future” (Behnam Tabrizi).

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  1. very inspiring sir :) what really imbued me with respect for this great gentleman is his ability to change- which is well reflected when he embraces the freedom struggle on the path of non violence being inspired from the Indians referred as " colored" by the chauvinistic whites system.But eventually he understands the situation and he shifts to the path of "violence" , both path leading to freedom. His nature of being all time sagacious and apprehending things beyond the walls is what really makes a true statesman.

  2. Totally agree with you Sir :) There is so much to learn from Madiba..He was not afraid to make unpopular decisions that he thinks are right. He instead used his charm and persuasion for people to see the point. Few learnings which I have imbibed are that no matter what challenges and obstacles we face in life, we must overcome them and should be the master of our fate. Courage and determination can overcome great odds. One should lead by example in order to make the changes he or she desires to see & should change when circumstances change. Last but not least we must forgive others of their deeds..