The regulated self
This again illustrates Mandela’s extraordinary ability to keep friendship and ideology separate. Most leaders speak with passion about their beliefs, finding affinity in friends and supporters. Mandela’s lesson for leadership today concerns the toughest challenge any of us faces, and especially leaders: the regulated self.
What is the self? It is hard to pin down neurologically and metaphorically. At the centre is consciousness, the node that attempts to control the flow of experience, achievement, desire, distraction and thought. Mandela’s self was crowded with powerful competing forces: deeply held beliefs, love for people and ideas – as well as the continual intrusion of hostile people and malevolent institutions.
He was forced to endure more than most, but his struggles resonate with leaders everywhere. All leaders have goals but too many lack a compelling, noble purpose that goes beyond everyday corporate heroism or glorification. What else makes Mandela’s leadership stand out?
1. We all tend to muddle facts and values, interpreting the meaning of neutral information according to our preferences and prejudices. Mandela’s reality was deeply emotional but he stood by his reason and its fundamental assumptions, impartially and without sentiment.
2. Too many leaders fight their enemies before they understand them. Mandela knew his enemies, taught himself their language, learned to enjoy their sports and tastes. He had a gift for what I call “decentring” – knowing what the world looks like through others’ eyes, especially enemies’. It gave him power to co-opt people and influence their opinions.
3. Like many leaders, Mandela segmented his life. It can impose a cost on relationships - as Mandela discovered. But elsewhere he proved how this can protect true values and principles. He loved his friends, whatever their ideology, and harmonised every aspect of living with empathic humanism.
4. When leaders face tough decisions, they often seek facts and advice. These are helpful when calculating the likely effects of decisions, but the best leaders, like Mandela, assert their right to define the framework – to shape the when and how of decisions: not being hurried by the demands of others and being prepared to wait for the right moment that will yield the best outcomes.
5. Mandela championed the values of lifelong learning with all who knew him. Leaders today are often too busy – lacking space for learning, rumination and deliberation before action.
6. Leaders need to know their leadership situation as it shifts its ground, to the point where they can say their time is done and it is time for a new person to take charge of this transformed situation, as Mandela did when he stepped down from office. This takes great perception, courage, selflessness and self-control. Mandela ended his leadership story with this inspired act. Too few leaders do likewise.
What happened in post-Apartheid South Africa is one of the most remarkable stories of modern times. Much of the dream has gone sour, but nonetheless among the young the rainbow nation is being born anew and can be seen on the streets of the nation’s cities. This is Mandela’s legacy, despite the abuses of power and failures of institutions in the country.
Business and professional organisations need vision. All leaders – Mandela included – have weaknesses, hot spots and deficiencies, but these do not for the most part render them unfit. Their flaws lie in self-deception, lack of true conviction and moral courage, inability to see beyond what is in their field of vision and lack of understanding of the human heart.
This renders them the captive of systems that they fail to command; it makes them fearful and cynical about radical change and lacking in confidence to assert their right to lead. Let them look to great leaders for inspiration and then back at themselves.