The world lost a great leader. A better way to think of it may be that we had a gift that lasted for 95 years. Mandela accomplished much but will be most remembered for his ability and willingness to forgive. Yes, he was a great civil rights leader. Yes, he was imprisoned for his beliefs. Yes, he was awarded a Nobel Peace prize. Yes, he was democratically elected president of South Africa. Yes, he wrote “Long Walk To Freedom,” a book about his life. Yes, he became an elder statesman who was the face of human rights and equality in virtually every part of the world. He was also human. He made mistakes. He had troubled marriages. He was afraid. But, in the end, he invited his accusers, his tormentors, his jailers and his enemies to the table in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. Few have the depth of understanding to realize what an act of courage that must have been. In his words, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” That is true leadership.
A leader is one whom others choose to follow. Mandela certainly reminds us of the truth of that. Millions, probably billions of people look to him for inspiration and courage when we face difficult decisions. He did not become a beloved and powerful leader because of his intelligence, his problem solving skills, his business acumen, his “charisma” or even his ardent convictions. He was a great leader because others believed in him. They saw in him something worth following.
Many business leaders persist in the belief that forgiveness is a sign of weakness. They have failed to learn the most important lesson of leadership: that you cannot lead without willing followers. Mandela was by no means “soft.” He was a dogged, and sometimes ruthless advocate for equality. He certainly held others accountable for their actions. But, he also realized that, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then, he becomes your partner.” A hard lesson indeed!
It is fitting, I believe, that Mandela’s passing comes on the heels of Thanksgiving in the United States. If ever there was a life worthy of our thanks, it was his. So, let us rejoice in his memory and take his lessons to heart. Our lives and our businesses will be better for it.