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President Barack Obama, in eulogizing Nelson Mandela, described him as a man who “bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.” What was it about Mr. Mandela that made him such a man? We attribute it to the strength of his character and its evolution through his constant learning from his experiences.
His drive for a better, just society and the vigor and passion with which he pursued this goal was relentless. It motivated him first as a lawyer and non-violent anti-apartheid campaigner, then as a co-founder of the armed wing of the African National Congress, through 27 years as a prisoner of the South African apartheid regime, emerging as a respected politician, president, world statesman, and as an icon of non-violence, peace and reconciliation in his later years.
Mr. Mandela was a transcendent leader emerging from captivity inspired not by resentment and hate but by what was possible in a new South Africa if he could only focus himself, his supporters and his countrymen on reconciliation rather than revenge, an idea that was not even on the horizon of most others – including his closest friends and supporters – when he assumed the presidency.
His personal courage was evident in the way in which he handled incarceration in the harshest of prisons and his relentless pursuit of reconciliation and rapprochement. His decision to abandon many of the economic and social principles of the early ANC movement and embrace a pro-business and private enterprise economic agenda, took personal and political bravery, resilience and tenacity. Because if this about-face, some questioned his integrity but he held fast in his belief that they were essential to maintain social and political stability and transition South Africa to a fully democratic, modern state.
President F.W. De Klerk, the last president of the apartheid regime, saw in Mr. Mandela someone who was willing to collaborate with people who were former enemies, be open-minded about how to achieve what needed to be done, was a consummate relationships builder, could be collegial when necessary while being prepared to stand alone when circumstance dictated. Mr. De Klerk felt he could do business with him, leading to the negotiations that ended the apartheid era.
Those whose lives he touched often talk about his humanity, his genuine expressions of concern and empathy for others, not just the disadvantaged and downtrodden, and the small and large symbols of that compassion. He accepted those who used to be his oppressors as his partners in building a new South Africa showing both forgiveness and magnanimity. Both his words and actions have consistently reflected a genuine humility, a degree of personal modesty, respect for others no matter what their status or importance may be, and the commitment to continuous learning and development that can only be successful in someone who is highly self-aware.
Mr. Mandela’s excellent judgment once in power is most remarkable. He used his considerable analytical and intuitive capabilities to think through very complex and rapidly evolving situations, to seek pragmatic solutions, and to make timely decisions in ambiguous and uncertain contexts. He did not allow ideology to stand in the way of progress or old loyalties to prevent him from establishing new relationships and alliances if they could better serve the interests of those he led. He held himself accountable to the real needs of his people rather than pandering to their immediate wants. He did what he believed was right rather than politically expedient.
It was this excellent judgment, especially in his mature years, that allowed him to manage, consciously or sub-consciously, all the other dimensions of his character in ways that led to effective leadership. His courage did not lead to foolhardiness, temperance did not prevent timely action, humility did not limit his confidence as a leader nor did integrity prevent him from making pragmatic decisions. While he had his sights set on goals beyond the horizon his strategies were grounded in reality. His humanity did not stop him from making tough decisions focused on long-term economic and political development, sometimes at the expense of short-term popular reforms.
This judgment was forged and shaped by his experiences and his reflection on those experiences. He used his time in prison to study, learn Afrikaans and as much as he could about the history, culture, literature and customs of his enemies. His own writings and speeches reflect this pattern of continuous learning and refinement.
These key dimensions of Mr. Mandela’s character: transcendence, drive, courage, accountability, temperance, integrity, collaboration, humanity, humility, justice, coupled with the judgment to balance and integrate them, are those that we should value and use to assess and develop those who might seek our support for future leadership roles. While Mr. Mandela’s achievements already ensure him a place in the pantheon of great leaders, a more intense focus on developing in others those selfsame character dimensions he personally exemplified, will further burnish his legacy.
Professor Mary Crossan, professor Gerard Seijts and professor emeritus Jeffrey Gandz are from the Richard Ivey School of Business (@iveybusiness) at Western University in London, Ont.