Dr Babita Mathur-Helm
Senior Lecturer in Diversity Management, Leadership and Gender Studies at University of Stellenbosch Business School
At a time of incredible social change, there is much talk about the leadership traits required to drive positive outcomes for humanity. But, inspired by Nelson Mandela’s legacy, we believe that the focus on leadership at this time of volatility and uncertainty is somewhat misplaced – the real challenge is to inspire humanity towards following a path to peace and prosperity for all.
And Mandela’s story provides insight into how building and sustaining a follower-driven movement can be achieved.
The best leaders excel in their followers' eyes by being themselves and developing awareness about what shaped them into who they are. They are able to communicate “Who am I” and Mandela seemed to understand this from a very early age.
After his father's death in 1927, the young Mandela became the ward of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu nation. It was at the Thembu royal homestead that his personality and values took shape. He learnt how a chief should listen to others, and this led him to be a very patient listener and to appreciate the power of humility.
Mandela knew that his political uprising would lead to prosecution and confinement by the ruling government, yet he was undeterred by the consequences of his actions. In the prime of his life, Mandela was imprisoned, and stripped of possessions that often denote a leader – certain attire, actions, behaviours, and material goods. His sense of autonomy was lost, but rather than despair, his focus shifted to internal self-control and integrity. When he saw that his outer world was becoming confined, his interior world became bigger.
Imprisoned, Mandela stood tall and spoke with a firm but humble voice, all of which commanded respect, not only for how he treated others, but how he expected to be treated by others, even those who would oppress him such as the prison guards who controlled his life.
"I do not need to pretend to be someone I am not."
After his incarceration, world leaders spoke of the human traits that evolved during his twenty-seven-years of imprisonment. His demeanour,behaviour and language embodied the anti-apartheid movement which, after all, was built upon universal principles of equality and respect. Mandela became a role model, and moved his followers to defy the racist policies of the South African government in a peaceful and dignified manner. Mandela famously said: “I do not need to pretend to be someone I am not.” A true mark of authentic confidence.
Like Mandela, leaders of today’s social movements need to demonstrateauthenticity in their actions and words. The leader must have a clear understanding about what he or she wants to be known for, to draw on their life experience to do this in an authentic way, and then ensure that these traits are communicated consistently.
Followers will give their hearts to figureheads who make them feel part of something and say, "You really matter", no matter how small their contributions may be. Mandela understood that. Followers want
to feel part of a community.
Mandela’s followers sought to end years of segregation and discrimination, and to become part of the struggle in achieving it. They felt empowered to adopt the necessary measures to achieve their common goals, and were willing to abide by guidance given by their leader.
The most powerful demonstration of this was in 1995 at the opening ceremony and final match of the Rugby World Cup, hosted by South Africa. Mandela smiled broadly and wore the Springbok Jersey, a powerful symbol of Afrikaans heritage: it was broadcast around the world. Mandela handed the trophy to Springbok captain Pienaar after South Africa's victory in the final against New Zealand, his gesture was a powerful statement – the emerging collective narrative – what it truly meant be a South African.
The Springbok victory gave the South Africans reason to cheer together. And his actions at the World Cup inspired followers across the world too.
Mandela was able to motivate followers by inspiring them towards achieving a common vision through a strong sense of purpose. His ability to inspire followers required collective insight, and through his empathy and powerful social skills, he was able to inspire others towards the collective good.
The final pillar of building and sustaining a followership base towards social change is termed the future narrative, “Where are we going”.
As a young man, Mandela had the vision to end the apartheid system and led a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government. His followers believed that his vision represented the means to end years of discrimination. Through his charisma and oratorical skills he was able to inspire millions. But his vision was not limited to ending apartheid – it was about imagining a future South Africa of equality, unity and prosperity.
In his inauguration as the first post-apartheid President of the South African Republic he described his vision for a ‘Rainbow Nation’. With it, he united the socio-cultural diversity of South Africa, and countered previous apartheid divisions. He said: “We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
The inclusiveness of Mandela’s inauguration speech was important as it lead to the inception of good faith negotiations between the National Party, the ruling party at the time, and Mandela’s African National Congress Party. But more importantly, it inspired a post-apartheid vision of what South Africa might become.
As the country’s first black president, Mandela’s monumental success provided inspiration for other, leaders including Barack Obama, President of the United States. At a time of global volatility and uncertainty we need more such leaders to inspire positive change.
The concept of followership has been explored in the context of leadership within organisations, and the understanding that followership is a key element of organisational success has had a deep impact upon the way that many individuals approach the art of management. Mandela understood that followers demand authenticity, a sense of community and an exciting future vision. In today’s world, where we witness division and conflict across racial, social, religious and political spectrums, we need leaders who can bring people together to celebrate what is common and shared.
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