Food 4 Thought

Lessons from Nelson Mandela for business leadership

Enterprise 21st century has a vacancy: visionary leadership. As we celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela this week, media reports are full of stories from people of all walks of life about how Madiba, in person and image, inspired them. And while his life was overly politicized, beyond his choice, it is worth considering what business leaders can take from him as role model.

Of the various types of leadership identified in management studies, Nelson Mandela most typified that of visionary and inspirational leadership. He has had to take incredibly difficult decisions in his life, fighting for a vision he was prepared to die for. Looking at his incredible life and historical footprint*, six key characteristics can be taken as source of inspiration for business leaders in our early 21st century:

1. A sense of collective humanity as moral compass
In his emphasis on humanity, Nelson Mandela always stressed the fact of him being part of a collectivity. It was never about himself or his own enterprise. He was persistently aware of the collective needs of his community, the context within which he operated. Equally aware in his later years of the challenges that nations are struggling with globally, he referred at a Live 8 concert in 2005 to massive poverty and obscene inequality as terrible scourges of our times.

In today’s global economy, his example points to the sense of social purpose we so desperately need from business leaders. This is not  a matter of expecting commercial enterprises to become moral enterprises, a simplistic zero sum game play-off between the business of business and social mores. Rather, it is about displaying quality of management that leads and efficiently runs the enterprise with a sense of social purpose. This means NOT pursuing business models, products and services that blatantly make little sense in the face of the sustainable developmental challenges the world faces today. It implies a keen awareness the collective needs of society and willingness to partner with others in long walks of generating shared value.

2. The strength to enter unknown terrain with all its risks, while not loosing those you lead
His strong awareness of collective social needs was accompanied by his ability as entrepreneurial leader to enter unknown paths alone where those around him were not ready. He showed an ability to move ahead and confront the risks of the unknown, whilst remaining fully aware of where he came from. This is part of quality leadership, able to set direction without losing colleagues or clients, oftentimes leading from behind, inspiring them to rise above “business as usual”.

For Mandela in the late 1980s this included the decision to enter into negotiations with the regime that imprisoned him and many others, at a time when many of his peers were stuck in an impossible standoff with each side demanding the other to lay down arms. As he stated when awarded the Nobel Peace Price, “a new society cannot be created with reproducing the repugnant past”. For visionary business leaders in the 2010s this implies a willingness to leap forward into new, sustainable markets, not remaining stuck in the markets of yesterday, in business-as-usual standoffs between what regulators and investors demand, or in the pressures of what peers are doing and market short termism.

3. Enormous patience and insight in listening, getting to know and understand the minds of your critics
Mandela is known for having taken the trouble to learn “the language of the enemy”, for learning the Afrikaans language and writings of white South Africans of European descent, for getting to understand the mindset, aspirations and fears of English and Afrikaans speaking white South Africans who actively and/or passively continued to support a system of forced separation and racial discrimination. This was a time when – on top of racial bias and ethnocentric fears – Cold War sentiment and ideological campaigning against Communism served to give additional push for violent opposition to the struggle for an open, nonracial democracy.

On a non-violent or sometimes even violent scale, corporations globally face diverse activist campaigns run by civil society groups increasingly frustrated by business-as-usual. As more consumer-citizens grasp the implications of sustainability trends and warning signals that scientists world-wide define with increasing clarity, public pressure and outrage (cf recent banking scandals) will grow. Quality of leadership in business today requires the willingness and ability – especially if you are the CEO of a global major – to learn the language and understand the mindset, including aspirations and fears, of your critics. This includes the willingness to dialogue with your civil society opponents, taking your social license to operate initiatives beyond an opposition and risk mentality to one of social collaboration and social innovation.

4. Bridging historic dogma, inspiring followers to do what is commonly thought of as the impossible
Nelson Mandela was the type of leader who consciously took steps to make lions lie down with lambs, inspiring people to believe in themselves and teams to punch above their weight. Evidence of him doing this in the world of sport has captured international imagination in recent years through the movie Invictus (undefeated). In the world of politics he is the one that convened retired apartheid leaders to shake hands with old anti-apartheid activists whose family members have been imprisoned and killed by them. He led an organization that fought for a nonracial and multicultural democracy, one that in its internal make-up included participation of diverse ethnic groups, one that historically in its leadership showed strength in diversity.

Mandela also showed the ability to look beyond the interest of his own organisation to the national interest, beyond the interest of the immediate to the broader strategic. Bridging old divides included his description of what he called “the Rainbow Nation”, the reconciled, nonracial democracy that is still going through its socio-economic birth pains today. For the leadership of global corporations, this raises the challenge of defining an integrated vision, of inspiring culturally diverse management to work as a team, inspiring employees to punch above their weight and take on the unthinkable.

5. Principled self-discipline and integrity
His family members tell from his childhood days how, in addition to being an avid sportsman, Nelson Mandela disciplined his cousins in the countryside to look after the family cattle properly. In the rest of his life his sense of discipline and applying that to himself was ever present. This was evident in his studies in law, writing LLB exams while facing a national treason trial – always aware of the value of education, the power of knowledge and the importance of being substantively proficient. It was also evident when he set up a law firm in Johannesburg, when setting up a network for social transformation, and subsequently when coping with years in prison. In a free South Africa, he became known among staff as the President that would stick to his daily routine of early morning exercise (brisk walks at 5am wherever in the world he found himself).

In his professional life as leader in government, this self-discipline displayed itself in his steadfast commitment to core principles and ethical behavior. It included his ongoing sensitivity to discrimination on the basis of factors such as gender. He inspired that self-discipline in others through his firm handshakes, always modest, accessible and taking note of the personal details of people of all levels who worked with him over the years in a liberation movement, in prison and in government. On his 27 years in prison he wrote: “Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.”

6. Leading by example
One of his most impressive qualities was the ability to “walk the talk” and lead by example. He was the first to admit that extreme political circumstances made it impossible for him to be the father he would have wanted to be. But in so many other respects he led by example and became known as “the father of the nation”.  Having set the example of extreme self-sacrifice in taking life imprisonment, at Robben Island he set the tone of engagement in often tense situations facing men in uniforms ready to throw verbal and physical abuse at him and his fellow inmates.

As free leader in a high risk society in transition, he built bridges, reminded all players of an inspirational vision and consistently backed this by his example of sitting down with protagonists of all sorts. He took people at face value and recognised them for their inherent qualities, raising above cliche biases based on race, culture, gender or social status. By taking only one term in office as President, he also set an example to political leaders in Africa, not insisting on extending his stay in office.

While more was expected of Nelson Mandela the leader in the operational domain during his earlier years, throughout his life he excelled as leader in the domains of strategy and interpersonal relations. And while most business leaders associate him with political life and calls for social philanthropy**, one can imagine what would have been the traits of Nelson Mandela the business leader. If he were born into a different generation and the societal context of our 21st century, he would not have been sitting on the fence in the face of the growing apartheid between the rich and the poor, and the alarming gap between current unsustainable practices and what informed managers know needs to happen to safeguard a sustainable future for our children. As entrepreneurial activist, he would have asked far reaching questions about the ethos of business, the social purpose of the enterprise and the meaning of value. Most importantly, his words would have been matched by actions in leading organizational change and market transformation.

* See “Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela”, Abacus (1994)
** See Nelson Mandela Foundation

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