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We remember Nelson Mandela as someone whose strength of character and resolve is an inspiration to the world. What, then, are some of the leadership qualities that best serve human beings and make us all better? And are these qualities possible in leaders at all levels and in all facets of life?
They lead themselves first
First, we are all well served by leaders with some emotional intelligence. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and are honest with themselves as well as others, even when it's not convenient or comfortable.
These people are conscious of and can manage their own emotional states. They can generate positive energy and build strong, trusted relationships to bring people together in the pursuit of a shared goal. They can also remain calm when hostile emotions arise, particularly in the face of adversity.
Through a commitment to bringing out the best in others, they also bring out the best in themselves.
They help us see what is best in ourselves
Leadership is really about creating the conditions that help others reach their own potential, even beyond what they thought was possible. Whether you are a parent, a coach, a teacher, a counsellor, a social activist, a business or political leader, the measure of your influence is the extent to which you make others better and more able to flourish as human beings. Leaders help followers lead themselves.
Bosses are people who get us to do things, using their authority and title. Leaders, by contrast, are those who inspire us to want to do things. They help us understand the why and not just the what. They help us embrace a cause and make it our own.
Nelson Mandela inspires us in part by his courage, wisdom, restraint and resilience, and in equal part by how he helped us see what is best in ourselves.
They help us see a better future
Leaders, almost by definition, are forward thinking. They create a compelling picture of the future in such a way that others can see themselves in that picture and become aligned with it, even perhaps for their own reasons.
There's a sense of hope, optimism and promise. And leaders can back up the vision with the courage of their convictions. But what makes a vision really compelling is when it somehow serves all of humanity, not just the narrow interests of a group.
"During my lifetime," Mr. Mandela said, "I have … cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
They want only the best – for everyone
We are well served by leaders who make everybody better, including those not in the room. They don't harbour resentments or give fuel to old feuds. As Mr. Mandela said: "Resentment is like drinking poison and believing it will kill your enemies."
The leaders we need don't prey on our emotions with false dichotomies and either/or thinking. They don't insist that when one side is right, the other must be wrong; or that when one side is weak, the other must be strong. This kind of thinking is like a teeter-totter; when one side goes up the other goes down.
Winning at any cost is not necessarily progress. That kind of thinking diminishes us all. It's desensitizing. We need leaders who think win-win, instead of win-lose, and leaders who want only the best for others.
Leaders like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, and perhaps many more you could name, serve as models for leadership in one important respect. In each case, their goals have led to the betterment not only of those in support of their cause at the time, but of all humankind. We are all somehow better and more fully human as a result of their leadership and their example.
They are close to home
Of course, these great leaders may be few and far between. But consider that every one of us is a potential leader at any moment. Here's why: The most influential people in our lives are the people we know, says Jim Kouzes, co-author of The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.
If you ask people – on any day other than the funeral of a great leader – what people they most admire and would be most likely to follow, they will likely name somebody they know. It's usually a parent, a teacher, or a coach – somebody close to them – who has inspired them the most.
This suggests that each of us has more potential influence than we realize. Leadership is not just the exclusive domain of the charismatic or transformative leaders we can all name. We can all effect the change we want to see in the world within our own sphere of influence and in any facet of life.
One of the great legacies of leaders like Nelson Mandela is that they remind us of our own humanity and potential for positive influence. His courageous example resonates because it's within us. When we look for the best in ourselves, and when we help bring it out in others, we can become the leaders people need and will remember.
Doug Mollenhauer (@dougmollenhauer) is a leadership and communication coach based in Vancouver. He is the founder of Born to Lead, a leadership program for students in Grades 10 and 11.