The Leadership Legacy of Nelson Mandela – A Case Study in Transcendence

Nelson Mandela passed away today.  Its been coming for a few months, so the experts say.  It doesn’t make it any easier.  I now live in a world without the model of so many of my leadership lectures.

Let’s be clear.  I am a follower of Jesus Christ and He is the only One I worship.  But Nelson Mandela’s leadership legacy gave me so many Christ-like characteristics to reference in a world where there seem to be fewer and fewer models to point to at a national and international level.  And there are so many points in his leadership journey that leave the rest of us mere mortals wondering…. “would I have reacted that way?”

He was a black South African in a country that ordained brutal institutional racism against the black and coloured South African (two different racial categories).  God forgive us for the use of Your holy word in ever supporting the oppression of one man over another based on race, gender…  He, among others, chose to fight this oppression, first with violence (matching only the violence he and his comrades experienced) but for the majority of his life, with non-violence.

In 1964 he was imprisoned for life (not his first turn in prison thanks to oppressive laws).  There he remained for 27 years until he was freed, at age 72, and within a few years, elected The Republic of South Africa’s first black president (1994).

OK, there’s the VERY brief overview of some of the facts…. Now, the stuff that has always amazed me….. and the points of transcendent leadership:

1.  A leadership that transcends current circumstances.  During his 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela continued to encourage and support those freedom fighters continuing the fight on the outside.  He also used that time to continue his education, completing his degree at University of South Africa (UNISA) via correspondence courses (that needed to be smuggled in and out of the prison).  I heard this story recounted many times by Robben Island (prison) inmates that serve as the tour guides now.  As an educator and one who has visited UNISA, this fascinated me.  And it aligns with this quote of his that is one of my all time favorites:

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

2.  Leadership that transcends personal affliction – the healing in forgiveness.  After 27 straight years in prison, plus a few more, he emerged from prison, not ready for retaliation or revenge, which any human would understand, but extending a hand of forgiveness to the people and the government that had imprisoned him.  Why?  Because his vision for the new South Africa would not happen without unity and without uniting the gifts and talents of all South Africans.  His long walk to freedom was but a precursor to the nation’s long walk to recovery.  And he lead the way.

3.  Leadership that recognizes that power must be limited…  the counter-cultural and counter-continental choice to limit his presidential years.  He ran for one presidential term – 5 years, and chose not to run for re-election, despite his assured victory.   Its been said that Nelson Mandela recognized the problems inherent in so many African leaders that “stay too long” in the job.  You’ve heard me speak on this many times.   The longer one stays in a leadership position, we move from “steward” of this responsibility to “owner” of this organization, this country, etc.  This may sound like an easy feat, but you mustn’t forget, leaders are never solitary beings.  They are surrounded by people who benefit from having them in their leadership role.  So it is with country presidents, many, many cabinet members, aids, family members and others benefit from having that person in power.  And yet he chose to not listen to those self-serving voices and step down after one term.

I know many a US congressional leader who could take a lesson from this.

4.  Leadership that is willing to embrace and include the dissenting / opposing voice.  I have an exercise my leadership students do when creating their leadership development plan.   “Interview someone that regularly disagrees with you about your leadership style”.  They hate this assignment.  Tough.  I love it.  Why?  Because all too often when you get into supervisory roles, leadership roles, you surround yourself with what I call the “bobble head cabinet”… a team of those around you who only ever agree with you.  Please don’t ever mistake compliance and apathetic agreement with support.  If you don’t have alternative viewpoints on your team, and those willing to share them… get a new team!  Nelson Mandela recognized that in order to rebuild the country after the apartheid (segregation) that had existed for so long, he would have to work shoulder to shoulder with people he did not like, that did not like him, that did not agree with him, that probably wished his failure… but for the good of the country, they had to transcend those differences.

And again, I can think of a few political parties closer to home that should pay attention to this part of the lesson!

5.  A leadership willing to transcend political party affiliation.  There were many, many big and small decisions Nelson Mandela made in his presidency that went against the party to which he belonged (African National Congress  – ANC).  From choosing not to remove white South African farmers off their land (land rights issues are significant in Africa) to not disbanding a sports team beloved by the Afrikaans (white) citizenry.  There was a line in a Harry Potter film that always made me think of this… “it takes great courage to stand up to your enemies, but even greater courage to stand up to your friends” to do what is right. (stop laughing at my source!).

These are just a few of the many reasons why Nelson Mandela has become one of the leadership models I teach.  And this blog is so insufficient in expressing the significance of Nelson Mandela to South Africa, my adopted home.  Having traveled there yearly since 1999 and living there in the middle part of last decade, his legacy influenced everything, including the comparison of those leaders (using the term loosely) that would follow.  So tonight his long walk has ended, his spirit joins his comrades Stephen Biko, Walter Sisulu and the thousands of others who fought for a better South Africa.  The work, however, continues as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mamphela Ramphele and other contemporaries continue that labor.

Where do I put my hope for South Africa?… First and foremost in the Spirit of the Lord that seems to be sweeping through the South African church and bringing it to its repentant knee for its part in the racial strife of the country the past 60 years.  But when I think of hope for South Africa… I see faces… I see Craig Stewart, I see Lloyd Williams and Mark Slessenger, I see Debbi, and Bryne and Bafo and Joy… and on and on.  My South African students who taught me so much… and for whom I have great confidence in the future of this beloved country.

Rest in peace Madiba… your legacy continues on.


About Dr. Beth A. Birmingham

Follower of Jesus, peculiar at times, but not always in the good biblical sense of the word, professor of leadership and international development, walking with people and organizations who end poverty, fight injustice and stand with the vulnerable... a rockin' good group of people!

Posted on December 5, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Pastor Kazevu Moses

    He was a special letter just designed by God Himself. Such people are unique and hard to find. Rest in Peace Papa Mandela

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