July 21st, 2011
12:44 PM GMT
Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday recently made many people reflect on what the former South African president meant to them. It cannot be overstated just how important Mandela’s leadership was in steering South Africa away from civil war and into a democracy.
His particular style of leadership was fuelled by an innate inner strength, a deep sense of self-confidence and years of patience honed in an apartheid jail.
The characteristics that define Mandela, who was the right leader at the right time, provide clues for all of us on how to manage conflict, deal with enemies and play the long game.
As a leader, Mandela was inclusive by nature. His childhood in the rural area of the Eastern Cape, watching tribal elders deal with community problems, inculcated in him a consensual approach to politics.
In prison and in the presidency, Mandela ensured that black and white, Xhosa and Zulu, English and Afrikaans, communists and capitalists, were given equal access and representation. Inclusion of a wide group of people in decision-making was, for Mandela, the purest form of democracy.
Listen and wait
Mandela is legendary for listening to all sides of the argument, taking guidance and then offering his analysis. In speaking last and entering the debate at a late stage, Mandela not only gained a psychological advantage but also the ability to close the argument. The final decision is his, but not before he takes council.
Sometimes though, go it alone
“There comes a time when a leader must lead,” said one of Mandela’s fellow prisoners. So, in the late 1980s, when South Africa’s townships were burning and the grip of the security apparatus never seemed stronger, Mandela secretly started talking and negotiating with the apartheid state.
He abandoned his consensual approach because he knew his ANC colleagues would disagree or veto any contact with the “enemy.” Instead, he did it alone. Taking a risk; going with his instinct that the time was right for negotiation.
First impressions count
Mandela is acutely aware of the power of image. He is tall, imperial-looking and walks with a ram-rod straight back. When he walks into a room he fills it with his physical presence. When he wears his casual, silk-printed shirts he gives the aura of a wise old mystic guru.
His wife, Graca, has told me that he is “vain,” always well dressed, neatly put together. This is as much about personal pride as it is about projecting an image of a man who is confident, successful and trustworthy.
Mandela sold himself as the “Go-To Guy” because not only was he a great leader, but he looked like one too. It is always fascinating to watch how people gravitate towards him in a room; he attracts people like a magnet, even children who have no idea of who he is. He’s the “main man,” as the say in South Africa, before he even opens his mouth.
The media is not the enemy
For a man who was locked away from the world for 27 years, Mandela has a refreshing understanding of the media. This is unusual for an African leader, many of whom continue to view the press with suspicion. Mandela differed from those in his own party in his attitude towards press freedom.
Zapiro, the South African political cartoonist, often recalls how Mandela told him how much he enjoyed his cartoons, even when Mandela himself was critiqued or caricatured. Importantly, Mandela also knew how to play for the cameras and manipulate the world of celebrity; he was just as easy with pop stars as he was with presidents.
Essentially, he used the mass media to help portray him as an everyman, which in turn helped him to win over those who might have been suspicious of him.
When it’s over, it’s over
One of Mandela’s greatest legacies was his decision to leave office after one term as president. Very few African leaders have given up power so smoothly and so quickly. Leading by example and showing that he wasn’t bigger than the Office of the President helped to steady South Africa’s democratic journey.
It is a lesson that is as relevant to gamblers as it is to sportsmen or CEOs: Quit when you are on top. Step away when the game is over. Do what you have to do, say goodbye and keep on walking.
Mandela’s not been seen in public for more than a year now. He’s frail, old and sometimes forgetful. As he walks away, in the twilight of life, it’s never too late to learn from one of the giants of our time.
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