3 unexpected leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela

Now that Nelson Mandela is dead, the world seems somehow diminished. I don't want to simplify his legacy or belittle the man's great achievement -- the dismantling of apartheid -- but I do think business leaders should think about what they can learn from him.

One of Mandela’s greatest and most enduring gifts was to turn received wisdom on its head. A big man, he was gentle. A violent man in his youth, he will be remembered as a peacemaker. Here are three counter-intuitive lessons I learned from Mandela about how real change can be achieved:

1) For tough negotiations, stay away from the noise. Never underestimate the value of being away from the action to get the action moving. In the late 1980s, an important mining company was considering withdrawing its considerable interests from South Africa because politically the country was deemed too unstable. The company persuaded the South African government under P.W. Botha to meet with Thabo Mbeki of the African National Congress. Both parties knew that utter secrecy was vital.

 Over a period of ten years, talks took place at Mells Park in the middle of Somerset, the heart of the British countryside. The village is today much as it was then. Walking through the village you see no one unless they’re entering or leaving the pub. The talks remained secret. New York, London, Paris would all have proved catastrophic. Discussing a long future in the middle of a place with a long past allowed real history to be made. 

2) Radicals and pragmatists can collaborate. It’s striking that what brought two ostensibly irreconcilable interests together weren't peacemakers, NGOs, the United Nations or a retired national leader. It was business: a company recognizing that the brutal and destructive politics of apartheid would prove destructive for its opponents and proponents alike.

The relationship between business and governments is not always so fruitful. Often they’re at loggerheads. Democracy, to business people, can seem chaotic and slow. Business leaders complain endlessly that their needs aren't addressed. 

But at Mells Park, interests could be aligned and the tough pragmatism of balance sheets could move mountains. In a strange paradox, the longer term interests of business helped to shift the short-term defensiveness of South African government policy.

3) You don't always have to have a plan. Many people imagine that Mandela’s release from prison necessarily meant the end of apartheid, that this was all part of a master plan. Far from it. In 1990, Mandela re-entered a world in which apartheid and the white government which supported it were both still in power. Free and full elections were not held until 1994 and the apparatus of apartheid not entirely dismantled until 1996. 

Mandela had power but he didn't have a plan. Instead, he responded to events which cumulatively created epic reform. This wasn't an action hero plot; it was slow, careful, opportunistic and contingent. Insistence on a knock-out blow would have stalled change.

We would all do well to remember that most of what we fervently believe to be true can, with exceptional people and circumstances, turn out to be entirely wrong. Think about Mandela and ponder this: The ability to stand truths on their heads is one definition of true leadership.


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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.