This week I was working out in South Africa. Generally, whenever South Africa and leadership are mentioned in the same breath, Nelson Mandela comes up. And this week was no different. Yet, this time the tales I was party to took my breath away and caused many of us listening to leak tears of wonder. I thought it would be instructive, and hopefully, thought-provoking to relate these stories here, in the hope that they might inspire us to think about leadership and what it could be, especially as we try to make sense of the spectre of leadership presented by Donald Trump and others.
There was a beautiful woman in the group, insightful and intelligent, with natural authority and presence. When she spoke, people listened. She processed quickly, thoughtfully and without ego, as if she were reaching for the highest version of herself and wanting to get past all the dross of human resistance. She began her story by saying that when she was a child, she had been playing out on the street of Soweto where she lived when a series of big, black, official looking cars pulled up. She happened to live on the same street that Mandela lived on when he came home to Soweto. And out of the car, of course, climbed the great man himself. People thronged, clamouring to get his attention.
And Mandela stopped, walked over to her through the crowd, shook her by the hand and said: “My dear, it is an honour to meet you.”
She was ten years old.
This moment, she said, has shaped her entire life ever since.
Every time I relate this tale, everyone has tears, and what is it about this story that touches us so? Because here is a man, revered as a great leader, looked up to by everyone across the world, who was so important that he could have done anything he wanted to. He could have made it entirely about himself. Yet he took the time to walk across the street to a child he saw standing there, and honoured her so much that this has not only changed her life forever and inspired her to live up to her highest potential, but touches everyone, forever after, who hears this story. We gasp in wonder at the humility and service of great leadership, at how small actions can have seismic effects on everyone, at that moment in time and forever into the future. Yes, Mandela was also human, and certainly, he would have had moments of human frailty like the rest of us, but he was able to manage himself in such a way that his everyday actions changed lives.
As it happened, I was fortunate enough on that workshop to meet another person who had had many dealings with Mandela, this time an ex-air force pilot, who still flew the state helicopter as a volunteer. He had flown many statesmen over the years, been Mandela’s pilot over 200 times, as well flying many other famous people like Oprah Winfrey, and I asked him what it was that had made Mandela stand out.
He told me that Mandela was always on time, meaning he was always considerate of the people around him. Other statesmen, said the pilot, would leave 10,000 people waiting in a stadium for two or three hours, without a second thought. Mandela would always, always be on time. He always considered the validity of others.
The pilot had flown many of the presidents and politicians of the apartheid era. He told one story of how the wife of one of the premiers, who had no claim to fame other than having entered into state life by marriage, made the pilot and his crew, grown men, stand and show their nails for a fingernail inspection before she would climb on board the helicopter. This is not leadership. This is jumped up entitlement.
When Mandela came to power, the pilot and his crew were naturally very nervous because they had served under the old white regime, and they had no idea what Mandela would do to them now that he was effectively their boss. But true to his style of great leadership, Mandela entered the room before the first flight and introduced himself to each crew member by name, taking a careful interest in each person. He asked them about life in the air force, whether they had enough equipment, money, goods. When they landed outside a stadium where Mandela was due to address thousands, he stopped his entourage to check who was looking after his crew, and when it transpired no one had considered this, he arranged for them to be escorted to a nearby hotel where they could rest rather than wait in the hot sun.
The pilot spent many an hour sitting with Mandela on a log in a field, while they were waiting to take off to some of other event or waiting for the car entourage to arrive. Mandela was always personal, always interested in the pilot’s family, always focused on others who he was leading.
When this pilot retired from full-time air force duty, Mandela hand wrote him a note that said: “Many happy landings, Nelson Mandela.” It is, of course, proudly framed.
Where are great leaders such as this as we are faced with leadership candidates who seem to be more obsessed with themselves and their own power than focusing on the people they are leading? Is it really so hard to think that as leaders our job is to be focused on the people we lead; on those we serve? Leadership is a privilege, not a right. In its essence, it is about considering the needs of others. You can have the best vision, the best mission, and the best plan, but if you are not actually leading people (leading as a verb, people as your focus), then what are you doing? Great leaders, like Mandela and many others, are conscious that even their small acts of service are symbolic to thousands of how we can be there for each other. They serve as a natural prompt to cause us all to think about the way we hold ourselves, and others, in our highest regard and to our highest game. Wise leaders show us all who we can become.
Becoming a Conscious Leader: How to Lead Successfully in a World that’s Waking Up is out on 30 November.