What did we learn from Nelson Mandela?

Typically when we are dissatisfied with a particular strategy or outcome in business or politics our first call is to change (or seek to change) the leader.

Too often when we are successful in this process the replacement leader is little better than the previous one.

Unusually this was not the case with Nelson Mandela.

What set Mandela apart from the majority of leaders is that he was humble, empathetic and authentic.  Most of the leaders that we select, elect and promote are not this.  Far more typically they are self serving and narccisistic.

It is a fundamental flaw of our democratic system that the people most likely to step up and say “vote for me” are also those most likely to be self serving and narcissistic.  In other words they are unlikely to be the sort of leader who is committed to serving the community.

Few of our businesses are democratic, they operate in a far more feudal model with a “King” at the top and fawning courtiers around them.  The whole culture of leadership in these “Totalitarian Plutocracies” (To quote my friend Roger Steare) is one of self service.  This works to an extent because the interests of the CEO and courtiers and the interests of the Board and  Chairman who appoint the CEO are quite closely aligned with each other.  And often quite poorly aligned with those of staff, customers and the general population.

In business this model only changes when the corporation does something so catastrophically wrong that regulation, shareholders and the board insist on a long term rather than short term approach for long enough to make a difference.

In politics it very rarely changes.  Even when an authentic leaders is elected (think Barak Obama), they cannot resist the inherent corruption of the system, in spite of their sincere and substantial efforts.

In my work, I often come across talented, humble and authentic leaders.  They rise to a certain level and then stop.  The reason they stop is precisely because of their humility, they don’t have the arrogance to believe that their business or organisation needs them as a leader.  They see others, more arrogant and aggressive, stepping up first.  They see that all of their role models for leadership are aggressive and arrogant and that is not how they are or want to be.

If we want to be sustainable as a society.  It we want a political system and business system that serves the society rather than itself we need to learn to elect, select and promote only the humble and authentic.

They won’t be obvious and they may well be reluctant.  We must learn not to choose the anyone as a leader who wants to be one.

The other side of this coin is that if you don’t want to lead in business or politics that may be precisely why you should consider it.  If you don’t have a vision for the future, but would be prepared to work with people to articulate it.  If you don’t believe that you know all of the answers, but would be willing to trust the judgement of others, If you would be willing to be vulnerable in pursuit of a vision and for what you believe in ; you may be precisely the kind of leader that we need.

Mandela ended up leading not because he wanted to, but because he had to.  Do you need to wait for things to get worse before you allow yourself to lead?

Please share your ideas, comment and discuss here – click on the blog title and scroll to the bottom to find the comment box.

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With love


Neil Crofts
authentic business




About Neil Crofts

Writer, coach and consultant on authentic business and authentic leadership. Neil has inspired and motivated hundreds organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written three published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a coach, facilitator and consultant helping people and businesses find their authentic purpose and use it to inspire and motivate them to be everything that they can be. Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish. Neil has been independent for over 10 years and delivered his Authentic Leadership message to a diverse range of business audiences including people at BP, Shell, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, MSN, Jamie Oliver, South Gloucestershire Council, National Blood Transfusion Service, KaosPilots Business School, Fashion company By Malene Birger, German technology company Eleven.
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2 Responses to What did we learn from Nelson Mandela?

  1. So true.Humility is underated in our society.

  2. Paul Norris says:

    as usual, thoughtful and relevant post Neil. I agree that countries need this kind of leader; I believe that more will get them Businesses however, will largely not. The problem is that in business, short term results almost always wins out as a strategy. When people damage others around them, lie to their customers or play fast and loose with their company’s reputation,. it matters not as long as the short term results are there. I have seen companies introduce into their review systems items such as a “Values” grid – so as to be able to assess the manner in which people achieve their results. After a short space of time the grid was quietly shelved because it asked too many difficult (for the company) questions. There have been, are and will be exceptions to this – some companies will genuinely live by ethical, values driven leadership, but most will not. The current way in which Capitalist companies (they all are after all) operate, the short term win for gain will always win the day. The business system is in and of itself corrupt and corrupting. We need more leaders like Mandela in our societies; I fear businesses are a long way from seeing that in their sphere.

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