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Nelson Mandela's transformational leadership to last forever
Saturday December 7, 2013 6:32 PM, Santhosh Babu, IANS

Almost four years ago, transformational leadership Mandela-style hit close home. While conducting a leadership alignment workshop for the senior management of two fierce rivals, who were now under one umbrella as a result of an acquisition, the challenge was uniting them and aligning them to a common goal.

Help came in the form of a suggestion, by Vikas, a partner with McKinsey. He believed that the movie "Invictus" ideally depicted how a leader could bring two opposing groups together and align them to a bigger purpose.

A single event during Rugby World Cup '95 illustrates Nelson Mandela's transformational leadership. He not only supported the all White African Rugby team Springbok but also wore the team jersey with the captain's number to the world cup final. And thus he used the Rugby World Cup as an effective means of bringing Blacks and Whites among Africans together.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I think that Nelson Mandela would pitch up at the final wearing a Springbok on his heart," Francois Pienaar, South African captain, said in a television interview later. "When he walked into our changing room to wish us good luck, he turned around and my number was on his back. It was just an amazing feeling."

Nelson Mandela was a Transformational Leader who used every opportunity to inspire people to achieve a common goal. The book "Playing the Enemy, Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation" by John Carlin reached every management institute as a text book. It describes Mandela's decade-long campaign to unite his country, beginning in his jail cell and ending with a Rugby tournament.

The transformational approach analyses the leader-follower interaction and examines how certain leaders are able to motivate followers by inspiring and empowering them to achieve a common vision through a strong sense of purpose and commitment. The way Nelson Mandela connected with Springbok's captain, motivated the team to win the World Cup and inspired the rest of the population to support Springbok, is an excellent example of a transformational leader. His ability to inspire shows a high level of emotional intelligence; which encompasses self-awareness, confidence, self-regulation, conscientiousness, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

Locked up at Robben Island for decades, Mandela read William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" to fellow prisoners. The poem, about never giving up, resonated with Mandela for its lines "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul." This clearly demonstrates his ability to connect with a bigger purpose and meaning that helped him survive the tough 27 years he spent in the prison.

Victor Franklin who wrote the book "Man's Search for Meaning" based on his experience in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II argued that identifying a purpose in life, to feel positively about it, and then imagining that outcome, helps us face extreme challenges in life. According to Franklin, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity.

I am sure reading the poem, and reciting the lines "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul" helped Mandela to face the day to day challenges in prison and he dreamt of the day he will come out and build a new South Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "The spirit of greatness that he personified resides in all of us. Human beings are made for greatness. Nelson Mandela embodied and reflected our collective greatness. He embodied our hopes and our dreams. He symbolised our enormous potential, potential that has not always been fulfilled."

As a true transformational leader Mandela was aware of the enormous potential in him and in his fellow human beings and this belief helped him dream big and aspire others to dream big.

Nelson Mandela's father, who was destined to be a chief, served as a counselor to tribal chiefs for several years. I am sure during his growing up years, in his village he imbibed the African philosophy Ubuntu. It is derived from a Nguni word, Ubuntu meaning "the quality of being human". Ubuntu manifests itself through various human acts, clearly visible in social, political, and economic situations, as well as among family. According to sociologist Buntu Mfenyana, it "runs through the veins of all Africans, is embodied in the often-repeated: "Ubuntu ngumtungabanyeabantu" ("A person is a person through other people").

This African proverb reveals a world view that we owe our selfhood to others, that we are first and foremost social beings, that, if you will, no man/woman is an island, or as the African would have it, "One finger cannot pick up a grain". Ubuntu is, at the same time, a deeply personal philosophy that calls on us to mirror our humanity for each other.

Ubuntu philosophy helped Mandela forgive those who imprisoned him for 27 years. After being released he said: "As I walked out of the door towards freedom I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind I would still be in prison."

Mandela was a role model for those searching for the meaning of life, having a dream bigger than self, mobilising, motivating and aligning people towards a common goal and having compassion and empathy towards fellow humans. As 21st century searches for models and mindsets that could make organisations and the world survive and be sustainable, Mandela will be a message that offers hope and possibility.

(Santhosh Babu is a CEO coach and leadership trainer. The views expressed are personal. Santhosh can be reached at and @hypnobaba on Twitter)

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