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Leadership lessons from Madiba

He was born in the Thembu Royal Family,he struggled under apartheid, he was incarcerated for leading the struggle for freedom and equality in society, yet he was determined and principled for the cause he lived for as a leader, hence on May 18 2002 at the 90th anniversary of Walter Sisulu, which was held at the Walter Sisulu Hall in Randburg, he said: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Systems Think Sam Hlabati

Many would agree with me that Nelson Rolihlahla “Madiba” Mandela indeed made a difference in the world. He was known, among other fond names, as Father of the Nation (Tata) and reconciler; hence December 16 is Reconciliation Day in South Africa. Just to demonstrate how much foresight he had; under his leadership, there was a change from the original commemoration of the public holiday December 16 from the Boers’ Day of the Vow, which was a religious holiday commemorating the Voortrekker victory over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. Sadly, some Boers still celebrate the day for its original meaning (may their souls get salvation before they die).

In tribute to the great Madiba, I would like to discuss some leadership lessons that we learnt from him. For leaders and future leaders who will be reading this instalment, it will be honourable that you celebrate the life of this great man by following in his footsteps.

One of the greatest lessons Madiba leaves to all leaders, incumbent and aspiring, is that leadership has a season. A leader should know when to step aside and allow the next generation to take over. When one looks at the corporate world, there are numerous examples of leaders whose names have become synonymous with the names of the organisations they are in. There is a worrying tendency of leaders to hang on to power until they get a gold-plated name tag for their office door.

One is still to understand the value of the practice of allowing key leaders to age in tenure of corporate entities leadership roles. Should a key corporate organisation leadership role holder feel great when receiving a long-service award and a retirement send-off after spending decades in the driving seat? Sympathisers and proponents for long corporate leadership tenures always find their justification in that the individuals would have worked hard to build the organisation, hence they should be allowed to reign over it.

Just compare the above to the following example of working hard, incarceration for 27 years, being labelled a terrorist and eventually emerging to build a great nation through reconciliation, then giving away the driving seat.

When Mandela emerged from incarceration and took office, then in a rare move, took a back seat and allowed the next generation — deputy president Thabo Mbeki — to run the country. Biographer Antony Sampson, the author of Mandela: The Authorised Biography noted that during Mandela’s one-term presidency, Mbeki “was more decisively running the country as Mandela became increasingly aloof from day-to-day government”. He says Madiba behaved “more like a constitutional monarch than an executive president”.

Learn from Madiba, you can relinquish leadership and yet retain your greatness. Of course, it will be difficult unless you were never great and you borrow your clout from the leadership incumbency. It is good corporate governance practice to limit the terms of executive leadership.

When he stepped down as president of the African National Congress (ANC) at the party’s 50th national conference in Mafikeng on December 20 1997, Mandela had this to say: “Today marks the completion of one more lap in that relay race — still to continue for many more decades — when we take leave so that the competent, generation of lawyers, computer experts, economists, financiers, industrialists, doctors, engineers and above all ordinary workers and peasants can take the ANC into the new millennium.”

This gesture would be rare in the corporate world, and indeed the graveyards are full of great strategies that were forever incubating in the minds of the young generation that never got a chance, courtesy of older generations that overstay their own generation time.

Another lesson that we learn from Mandela is from one of his greatest characteristics: humility. Having power as a leader gives one the wherewithal to determine the future of others, while the leader gains more power of self-determination. When the power that leaders wield gets into their minds, the ability to abuse it becomes easy, ultimately creating a tyrant.

As much as Madiba had the power to commandeer the way for his views and desires, he mostly worked with humility. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, Mandela held a joint press conference with the then United States president George Bush; castigating the al-Qaeda and its then leader Osama Bin Laden.

The Moslem community criticised Madiba for not displaying the statesmanship and even-handedness that ordinarily characterised his politics, through his supposed lack of displaying commitment to the rule of law, which demands a trial before conviction.

Mandela made efforts to control the damage caused by his initial statements; a stance he took after meetings with family, friends and advisers who informed him of the anger his initial statements had provoked. When he realised his mistake of angering a constituency that had always been important to the ruling ANC, Mandela displayed humility by apologising to the Moslems. He publicly acknowledged that his initial statements had been “one-sided and overstated”. He also apologised for giving the impression of being “insensitive and uncaring about the suffering inflicted on the Afghan people and country” in the course of the war against terrorism.

Rest in peace Madiba. Lala ngoxolo Tata. For you were Khulu, the Great One; Rolihlahla, the one who pulls the branch as a good trouble maker, Aaah! Dalibhunga! For you were indeed a creator and founder of the council and the convenor of the dialogue.

Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; Twitter handle: @samhlabati

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