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Friedman: Why Mandela was a one-of-a-kind leader

  • (CLAY BENNETT / Chatanooga Times Free Press)

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.

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