Management lessons from Madiba

What gave Mandela such great influence? What unique lessons can he teach us about management?

This morning I watched a video, made in 1999, of an on-stage performance by Johnny Clegg and Savuka of their exquisite song for Mandela, Asimbonanga. Madiba, grinning from ear to ear, drifts onto the stage from behind the band, doing his landmark jive. It brought tears to my eyes, and a deep sense of the vacuum that his passing has left. I’ve been wondering how it’s possible that someone whom I never met, someone with whom I never exchanged one word, could have had such a lasting effect on me. What is it that Mandela had? What is it that he did that gave him such great influence?

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More practically, what lessons can we learn from Mandela that will help us all become better managers? Countless books have been written about him, of course, and authors have dissected his personal characteristics from every angle. But few have attempted to identify and analyse his unique managerial strengths. He had a remarkable talent for connecting with people, and making them all feel special. He was what many politicians are not – a highly effective manager.

I believe this came naturally. As far as I know, Mandela never consciously employed any modern ‘management techniques’ in getting what he wanted done. And this provides an instant and fundamental lesson for managers the world over.
Dedicated and expert application of the most sophisticated management techniques available – balanced scorecards, long-range business plans, market research and all the rest – will do little for the success of the manager concerned, unless he or she has some of the character traits displayed by Mandela.

Dignity
At Mandela’s memorial service, US President Barack Obama put his finger on most of these traits. To begin with, there was Mandela’s dignity: he was serene and smiled often, yet was tough-minded and capable of displaying great courage, and sometimes even anger.

These qualities were seen when he took on the architects of apartheid prior to his imprisonment, when he rebuffed offers of conditional release from prison, and when he argued so strongly with his colleagues that to do away with the Springbok as the symbol of South African rugby would be a mistake. He was always a man of action, and he understood the power of action. As a shrewd politician, he also understood the power of symbolic action. Who will ever forget his presence at the rugby World Cup final in 1994?

Humility and humour
For all this, Mandela was able to share his doubts and fears, and was very much aware of his own imperfections. He was also a person full of good humour and, as Obama said in his speech, often quite mischievous. He was also willing to engage with those with whom he did not agree. In all those dealings, people never saw or heard him become personal. No matter how much he was provoked or how frustrated he became, he always kept the focus on the issue, never on the person. This was due to his deep sense of integrity, a characteristic so lacking in much of our national leadership of today.

I remember clearly Mandela telling Tim Modise in an interview: “If you questioned the integrity of the person with whom you were negotiating, you destroyed all possibility of a settlement.” He went on to say, and this was the revelation to me: “To question the integrity of someone, is itself demonstrating the lack of integrity of the questioner.”

Bound to each other
In his obituary, Obama mentioned one element in Mandela’s makeup – he calls it his greatest gift – which I had never fully appreciated. This was Madiba’s recognition and understanding that, in the long run, in ways which are invisible to us, humanity is bound together. Every action taken by someone inevitably leads to a reaction somewhere down the chain of existence.

You won’t find the traits and characteristics that gave Mandela such influence and power listed in any scholarly works examining the behavioural patterns of great business leaders – and that’s exactly the point. No amount of study and understanding of the methods of modern management will help you to be a great manager if you do not have humility, integrity and empathy.

If you are a prickly, self-centred, arrogant person with little interest in those around you, you will never be truly successful as a manager.

To really make a difference, you have to be a little like Nelson Mandela.

This article was originally published in the 4 April 2014 issue of Farmers Weekly.