Nelson Mandela and the State of Immortal Statesmanship

Every once in a while a leader is born with the ability and opportunity to transcend immense societal divides and transform the world for the better. Their impact is so great that neither death nor the passage of time diminishes their memory in the public consciousness. They are immortal statesmen.

If he were still alive, Nelson Mandela would turn 99 years old on Tuesday, July 18th. Mandela’s exploits are legendary: running an underground resistance to a violent racist regime, and then maintaining his unflinching commitment to justice through 27 years of imprisonment, all culminating in a term as his country’s first democratically elected president.

He’s been gone for nearly four years, but he might as well still be standing proudly in front of an adoring crowd, his fist raised triumphantly in the air while his wide smile emanates warmth and joy. That’s how the world remembers him, and that image will forever live on in history.

It is worth asking whether the age of the immortal statesman has come and gone. In a world where a leader’s every move is dissected by a 24 hour news cycle and a social media landscape where anyone with a Twitter handle can reach an audience of millions, one could argue that today’s would-be immortal statesmen may never again transcend the noise and frenzy to bridge great divides.

In an op-ed published during the 2016 presidential election, Kerry Kennedy, daughter of another immortal statesman, Robert F. Kennedy, wrote, “I shudder to think of my father struggling to capture the raw emotion of the terrible night the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in a 140-character tweet.”

Given these dynamics, the emergence of an immortal statesman in the modern era may seem impossible. But, as Mandela himself once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

After all, the same forces that fragment the flow of information help democratize it. Citizens are more empowered than ever, and where government has fallen short, CEO statesmen can leverage their impact in the business world to push for social change. As a result, we live in an age of unprecedented opportunity for leaders of all backgrounds to share their values with the world. The pool of potential great leaders has never been bigger, and their platform to catalyze change at scale has never been greater.

The circumstances that led to the ascendance of Nelson Mandela were unique, but many lessons of his immortal statesmanship are universal.

Three in particular can help today’s leaders reach for immortality:

Have one broad vision, and convey it clearly. After a lifetime of oppression, Mandela’s list of grievances and demands of South Africa’s apartheid regime could have filled an entire textbook. But every negotiation and rallying cry came down to one simple goal: One man, one vote.

While complex times require a comprehensive set of ideas, they must be bound together by an overarching goal that is at once easy to understand and profoundly impactful. Mandela and the African National Congress knew that they had to address a laundry-list of issues ranging from wealth inequality to a lack of public education. “One man, one vote” was the big vehicle by which every other issue reached the people and inspired the masses.

Adapt your tactics, but not your values. Perhaps Mandela’s most impressive trait was his ability to leap over short-term hurdles on his way toward achieving the long-term goal of a free, peaceful and democratic South Africa. He did so by constantly adapting. From his stance on non-violent resistance to his willingness to negotiate with the Afrikaner regime, Mandela’s tactics were determined only by how they would ultimately serve his core values.

As Mandela’s biographer, Richard Stengel, wrote in Time Magazine, “[Mandela’s] unwavering principle – the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of one man, one vote – was immutable, but almost anything that helped him get to that goal he regarded as a tactic. He is the most pragmatic of idealists.”

Lead by example. Mandela famously said that freedom was “an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” He backed up this rhetoric with genuine self-sacrifice. No legal or personal consequences were ever enough to loosen his commitment to the struggle. Nor could they rob him of his warm character, one that embodied the love and respect he hoped to instill in his country’s population.

Later, upon finishing his first term as president of South Africa, Mandela could have used the lifetime of goodwill he had earned through his heroism to seize power or benefit financially. Instead he left the presidency, recognizing that the best thing he could do to ensure a democratic future for his people was to show that it could continue without him.

Today, as we celebrate Mandela’s remarkable life, let’s remember not just the iconic imagery and moments of triumph that made him a legend; let’s give credit to the years of careful planning, strategy, and dedication that paved the way for his ascendance to greatness.

Alan H. Fleischmann is President & CEO of Laurel Strategies, Inc., a global business advisory and strategic communications firm for Leaders, CEOs, and their C-suite.

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