In honor of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday last year, Time Magazine published an article on Mandela’s Eight Lessons of Leadership
No.1: Courage is Not the Absence of Fear, it’s Inspiring Others to Move Beyond It
Mandela talks about how necessary it was to “pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others” during his tenure at Robben Island.
Although he was constantly afraid in the prison, he knew that his fear would only function to instill fear in the people who were risking their lives everyday to fight against apartheid outside of the prison.
He knew, that by appearing to be fearless in facing the horrors of Robben Island, he could inspire others to face the horrors of Apartheid.
It’s an interesting idea…. and brings up the question of what exactly are the functions of “leaders” and what constitutes “leadership”?
Is it primarily a symbolic label as Mandela seems to suggest? Is leadership merely the ability to inspire/motivate/convince others to accomplish the work that must be done?
And if this is the case, one has to wonder about the ways in which this idea of leadership simultaneously disempowers people.
If “leaders” are never really the ones responsible for the work being accomplished (as one could argue was the case during the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the ground work of getting major tactics like the March on Washington and the Birmingham Bus boycotts coordinated), and it really is the work of the “community” that creates and sustains movements. Then what does all the credit for the work of these movements being attributed to these symbolic leaders do for the communities feelings of self-assurance?
In a time where the black community is constantly lamenting the lack of “black leadership” and looking for the next protest movement (a la the 60’s and 70’s). An important question would seem to be whether or not our communities addiction to symbolic leadership has prevented us from recognizing and acting on the (already demonstrated) power in grassroots activism.
No. 8: Quitting is Leading To
This seems to be another poignant lesson for black leadership in the United States.
Mandela was determined to set a precedent for all who followed him — not only in South Africa but across the rest of the continent. He would be the anti-Mugabe, the man who gave birth to his country and refused to hold it hostage. “His job was to set the course,” says Ramaphosa, “not to steer the ship.” He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.
This seems to speak for itself. The author of the article points out that in many ways, Mandela’s greatest legacy as President of South Africa is the way he chose to leave it. When he was elected in 1994, Mandela probably could have pressed to be President for life. But by stepping down, and allowing others to take part in the leadership and development of South Africa, he reached beyond himself and did what was best for his country.
In a time where today’s black leaders are the same people who were “black leaders” thirty years ago. It seems that their inability to find the humility to step down and not only allow young black men and women to take on positions of leadership, but to train them to take on those positions of leadership, has paralyzed the evolution of black activism in the United States.
We are stuck in a cycle of trying to recreate the 1960’s-70’s in a political environment that requires a new form of black politics. Until as a community we are willing to free ourselves from the belief that the civil rights and black power movements were a high point that we are obssessed with trying to reach again, we will continue to cycle through ineffective political strategy after ineffective political strategy.
Mandela’s lessons on leadership have a lot to offer us in the United States. I encourage you to take a look at the article and let me know what you think!