Why Mandela was such a unique world figure

The New York TimesDecember 13, 2013 

The global outpouring of respect for Nelson Mandela suggests that we’re not just saying goodbye to the man at his death 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, it tells the story of Mandela’s one and only term as president of South Africa, when he enlists the country’s famed rugby team, the Springboks, on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby 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 colors 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 — and 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 CEOs on governance and who is the author of the book “How,” argues that another source of Mandela’s moral authority derived from the fact that “he trusted his people with the truth” rather than just telling them what they wanted to hear.

Finally, said Seidman, “Mandela did big things by making himself small.”

What is so inspiring about Mandela, explained Seidman, “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 really big moment to go from racism to pluralism without stopping for revenge.

Mandela, and his partner, South African President F.W. de Klerk, got enough of their people to transcend their past rather than to wallow in it. So much of American politics today, noted Seidman, is about “shifting, not elevating, people.” So much of American politics today is about how I narrowcast to this poll-tested demographic in this ZIP code to get just enough voters to shift to my side to give me 50.1 percent — just enough to win office, but not to govern or do anything big and hard. Mandela’s leadership genius was his ability to enlist a critical mass of South Africans to elevate, to go to a new place, not just shift a few votes at the margin.

It is precisely the absence of such leadership in so many countries today that has motivated millions of super-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 that generating that unity of purpose and focus still requires a leader, but the right kind of leader.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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