Leadership Lessons

Why Mandela Was Unique

Published: December 10, 2013

The global outpouring of respect for 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 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 C.E.O.’s 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. “Leaders who trust people with the truth, hard truths, are trusted back,” said Seidman. Leaders who don’t generate anxiety and uncertainty in their followers, who usually deep down know the truth and are not really relieved, at least for long, by having it ignored or disguised.

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

“Through his uncommon humility and his willingness to trust his people with the truth,” explained Seidman, “Mandela created a hopeful space where enough South Africans trusted each other enough so they could unite and do the hard work of transition together.”

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 did not make himself the hope,” added Seidman. “He saw his leadership challenge as inspiring hope in others, so they would do the hard work of reconciliation. It was in that sense that he accomplished big things by making himself smaller than the moment.”

To put it another way, 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.

“People are rejecting leaders who rule by the formal authority of their position and command by hierarchical power,” said Seidman, but “they are craving genuine leadership — leaders who lead by their moral authority to inspire, to elevate others and to enlist us in a shared journey.”


Looking to the Past: An 1860 portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy. The Granger Collection
What Would Lincoln Do?
Modern-day leaders could learn a lot from our 16th president

Feb. 14, 2014 8:04 p.m. ET

Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we mark this holiday weekend, had less leadership experience than almost any earlier president. George Washington and Andrew Jackson had been generals, several other presidents had been governors, and all the Southerners had owned plantations. They had run organizations and managed men. President Lincoln, by contrast, was a former state legislator, a one-term congressman and the senior partner of a two-man law firm; he kept his most important papers filed away in his hat.

And yet Lincoln filled the office of president so effectively that he regularly tops historians’ rankings of great presidents.

It helped, of course, that he was one of the greatest writers in the American canon—certainly the greatest ever to reach the White House (Jefferson at his best could be equally good, but his range was narrower). Leaving aside such extraordinary talents, which of Lincoln’s principles of action can guide his successors?

Cite precedent. Lincoln the lawyer was ever mindful of precedents, while Lincoln the unhappy son who never bonded with his hard-driving, un-bookish father was always looking for paternal surrogates. He found both precedents and men he could look up to in America’s founding fathers.

Lincoln’s mature career—from the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854 until his death in 1865—was, among other things, a long effort to show that his positions on the issue of slavery were those of the founders. (Lincoln wanted slavery contained and ultimately extinguished; so, he said, did they.) He hammered away at this theme in his Peoria speech in 1854, the three-hour-long oration that first laid out his ideas; he returned to it repeatedly in his 1858 debates with the Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas ; and he spent half the Cooper Union Address, his New York City command performance in 1860, showing that “our fathers, who framed the government under which we live,” agreed with him. “As those fathers marked [slavery], let it be again marked,” he said, “as an evil not to be extended.”

Lincoln wanted to wrap himself in the founders’ aura—gilt by association—and he believed that they had been right about human nature, liberty and equality. He wanted to be on their side, and he wanted them on his.

Make your case. The histories of kingdoms and empires are often court histories—who whispered what to whom. So, dismayingly, is much modern political reporting: Who got to the chief of staff? How did the senator learn about this? If Saint-Simon, the chronicler of the Sun King’s Versailles, were alive today, he would have a column or a talk show.

Lincoln could play inside baseball, making deals and manipulating colleagues, when he had to. But he understood that democracies are ultimately ruled not by such little maneuvers but by the people. “Public opinion in this country,” he said bluntly in 1859, “is everything.” That means that everything depends on wooing, shaping and educating public opinion. That, in turn, requires leaders to put themselves out there. It helps, of course, if their arguments are clear and their programs sensible. But even the most brilliant philosopher statesman has to make his case.

Humor helps. Lincoln had an immense stock of jokes and stories, some of them off-color. He often used them to distract people he knew he couldn’t immediately satisfy. Leonard Swett, one of his Illinois cronies, recalled him receiving visitors in Springfield, Illinois, after he had won the Republican nomination in 1860: “He told them all a story, said nothing, and sent them away.”

But Lincoln’s humor worked at a deeper level to keep everything in proportion. One of his favorite jokes—his last law partner, William Herndon, said he heard Lincoln tell it “often and often”—was about a bold, clever fellow who breaks wind while carving a turkey at a party “so that all the people heard it distinctly.” The hero of the joke manages to get the turkey carved in the end.

But the ludicrous situation, with its vulgar twist, served to remind Lincoln and his auditors that life is full of mishaps and (even worse) embarrassments. No one should be surprised, aggrieved or affronted by this; one must simply carry on, jauntily if possible. This is an important lesson for the many frustrations and crises of politics.

Principles first. Lincoln grew up in a major political party that had a shorter life span than he had. The Whig Party came together in the early 1830s to combat Andrew Jackson, the man who had transformed the Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison into the Democratic Party of today. Jackson had a personality—combative, tempestuous—but he also had principles: small government, sticking up for the common man (the latter continues to be a watchword for today’s Democrats).

The Whigs had vivid leaders of their own— Henry Clay and Daniel Webster —and principles too: They wanted a central bank, protective tariffs and economic development. But time was not kind to the Whigs or their principles. Clay himself cut tariffs after the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33, and the charter of the Second Bank of the United States expired in 1836, never to be renewed. The Whigs were reduced to trying to win presidential elections by running war heroes. Two of them— William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor —won, in 1840 and 1848. But the third, Winfield Scott, was crushed in 1852. The Whig Party was dead on its feet.

But a new issue was stirring. John Stuart, a former Whig congressman who had been Lincoln’s first law partner and mentor, said to him one day, “Lincoln, the time is coming when we shall have to be all either Abolitionists or Democrats.” “My mind is made up,” Lincoln answered, “for I believe the slavery question can never be successfully compromised.”

Lincoln had been in one party whose principles had leached out of it. He would never be in that position again. In 1860, he ended the Cooper Union Address with this ringing appeal to his fellow Republicans: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Be inclusive. Principles are not disembodied things; they require men who will make them real in this world. Lincoln had a wide embrace for allies.

This was partly a necessity of a new party. The Republican Party, which coalesced in 1854-56, included longtime abolitionists, Whigs, Democrats and Know Nothings (who disliked slavery but disliked immigrants only slightly less). Lincoln worked with men who possessed all these back-stories. He also worked with men of different temperaments. His secretary of state, William H. Seward, was genial and good-humored. His treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, was sharp-elbowed and forever submitting his resignation. His first secretary of war, Simon Cameron, was ethically challenged (Lincoln saved him from a congressional investigation).

Doris Kearns Goodwin, surveying Lincoln’s cabinet, coined the term “Team of Rivals.” It might be better to say that Lincoln ignored the rivalries to focus on whatever he could have in common with these often talented, always contentious men. Lincoln expressed his rule of thumb in his Peoria speech in 1854: “Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong.”

Look to the past, speak out, laugh, stand firm and stand together. What worked for Lincoln might work for you.

Mr. Brookhiser is the author of “James Madison” (Basic Books) and “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington” (Free Press)


Leadership Lessons

About Jerry Frey

Born 1953. Vietnam Veteran. Graduated Ohio State 1980. Have 5 published books. In the Woods Before Dawn; Grandpa's Gone; Longstreet's Assault; Pioneer of Salvation; Three Quarter Cadillac
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