What made Nelson Mandela such a great leader?
Illustration: Matt Davidson
The global outpouring of respect for Nelson Mandela suggests we're not just saying goodbye to the man but that we're losing a certain kind of leader, unique on the world stage today, and we are mourning that just as much.
Mandela had an extraordinary amount of ''moral authority.'' Why? And how did he get it?
Much of the answer can be deduced from one scene in one movie about Mandela that I've written about before: Invictus. Just to remind people, it tells the story of Mandela's one and only term as president of South Africa, when he enlists the country's rugby team, the Springboks, on a mission to win the 1995 World Cup and, through that, to start the healing of that apartheid-torn land.
Before the games, though, the sports committee in the post-apartheid, newly black-led South Africa tells Mandela that it wants to change the name and colours of the almost all-white Springboks to something more reflective of black African identity.
But Mandela refuses. He tells his black sports officials that an essential part of making whites feel at home in a black-led South Africa was not uprooting all their cherished symbols.
''That is selfish thinking,'' Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, says in the movie. ''It does not serve the nation.'' Then speaking of South Africa's whites, Mandela adds, ''We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity.''
There are so many big leadership lessons in this short scene. The first is that one way leaders generate moral authority is by being willing to challenge their own base at times - not just the other side.
It is easy to lead by telling your own base what it wants to hear. It is easy to lead when you're giving things away. It is easy to lead when things are going well. But what's really difficult is getting your society to do something big and hard and together. And the only way to do that is by not only asking the other side's base to do something hard - in South Africa's case, asking whites to cede power to black majority rule - but to challenge your own base to do hard things, too: in South Africa's case, asking blacks to avoid revenge after so many years of brutal, entrenched, white rule.
Dov Seidman, whose company LRN advises chief executives on governance and who is the author of the book How, argues that another source of Mandela's moral authority derived from the fact ''he trusted his people with the truth'' rather than just telling them what they wanted to hear. ''Leaders who trust people with the truth, hard truths, are trusted back,'' Seidman said. Leaders who don't, generate anxiety and uncertainty in their followers, who usually deep down know the truth and are not really relieved, at least for long, by having it ignored or disguised.
Finally, Seidman said, ''Mandela did big things by making himself small.
''Through his uncommon humility and his willingness to trust his people with the truth.
''Mandela created a hopeful space where enough South Africans trusted each other enough so they could unite and do the hard work of transition together.''
What is so inspiring about Mandela, Seidman said, ''is that he did not make the moment of South Africa's transition about himself. It was not about his being in jail for 27 years. It was not about his need for retribution.''
It was about seizing a big moment to go from racism to pluralism without stopping for revenge. ''Mandela did not make himself the hope,'' Seidman said. ''He saw his leadership challenge as inspiring hope in others, so they would do the hard work of reconciliation. It was in that sense that he accomplished big things by making himself smaller than the moment.''
To put it another way, Mandela, and his partner, former South African president F.W. de Klerk, got enough people to transcend their past rather than wallow in it.
It is precisely the absence of such leadership in so many countries today that has motivated millions of empowered individuals in different countries in the last four years - from Iran to Egypt to Tunisia to Turkey to Ukraine - to flock to public squares. What is striking, though, is the fact that none of these ''Tahrir Square movements'' have built sustainable democratic alternatives yet. That is a big, hard project, and it can only be done together. And it turns out generating that unity of purpose and focus still requires a leader, but the right kind of leader.
''People are rejecting leaders who rule by the formal authority of their position and command by hierarchical power,'' Seidman said. ''They are craving genuine leadership - leaders who lead by their moral authority to inspire, to elevate others and to enlist us in a shared journey.''