By: Eric Betts

One of the great leaders of the latter part of the twentieth century was Nelson Mandela. He was one of the great freedom fighters and pro-democracy advocates during the time of the South African Apartheid government. As a result of his bravery, humility, ambition, and leadership, the walls of apartheid were demolished, and freedom came to all the citizens of South Africa. He went on to become a successful president of South Africa, and one of the great world leaders of the times. He had the ability to bring opposing factions and former enemies together for the good of all of his country’s citizens. There are many leadership and success principles that can be learned from his life story. Before becoming an attorney in Johannesburg, the seeds of his success were sown in him while growing up in his tribal area. Mandela was born in a rural village in South Africa and was later sent by his mother to live with an African chieftain who was a family relative and ruled a vast area in that part of South Africa. While there, Mandela learned the keys to being a successful leader and how to build relationships in the process. The keys to this success are outlined in his autobiography entitled, The Long Road to Freedom.

Guard The Dignity Of Others

One of the great needs of any human being is to be respected by his or her peers. Generally speaking, human beings are afraid of being embarrassed, humiliated, publicly insulted, or shamed. A great leader does whatever needs to be done to avoid this. This is true in any time period in history and within any tribe, nation, race, or language group. The key to being a successful partner and relationship builder is recognizing that every human being has value and worth. The greatest mark of emotional maturity is the ability to respect the dignity of an enemy or one who holds a different view of the world. The path to success is the ability to build relationships, even with those with whom one may disagree. In order to build those relationships, one must respect and guard the dignity of others. Even when made aware of another’s weaknesses, mistake, or ignorance, this should never be used to one’s advantage. A secure individual does not need to expose those weaknesses in others in order to succeed. His success is based strictly on his own values, abilities, and experience. The stronger and more powerful person among a set of leaders is the one who is willing to refrain from exposing even his enemies to unnecessary humiliation and shame, but seeks to build a relationship to accomplish something greater than us all. In cases where crimes are committed, this may be necessary for the good of society, but not as a stepping stone to success. Mandela learned this early in life as he says.,

I learned my lesson one day from an unruly donkey. I jumped on and the donkey bolted into a nearby thorn bush. It bent its head, trying to unseat me, which it did, but not before the thorns had pricked and scratched my face, embarrassing me in front of my friends. Like the people of the East, Africans have a highly developed sense of dignity, or what the Chinese call “face.” I had lost face among my friends. Even though it was a donkey that unseated me, I learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonoring them.

Value All Opinions Equally

In order to build relationships and consensus among diverse parties, Mandela taught that everyone’s opinion should be respected. Regardless of educational background, economic status, family background, or position in society, all men are created equal. No voice should be disregarded because of the lack of economic power, political influence, or academic achievement. Every voice that can be heard should be heard. In some cases, one may disagree with the manner in which a party may express their opinion, it should still be valued. No one should feel intimidated, unimportant, or inadequate when it is time to voice one’s point of view within any setting. The leader should go out of his or her way to make sure that every voice is heard and considered, and that those voices are comfortable with speaking up. On this point, Mandela stated the following:

My later notions of leadership were profoundly influenced by observing the regent and his court. I watched and learned from the tribal meetings that were regularly held at the Great Place… All Thembus were free to come and a great many did, on horseback or by foot… Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer.

The foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens…I noticed how some speakers rambled and never seemed to get to the point. I grasped how others came to the matter at hand directly, and who made a set of arguments succinctly and cogently. I observed how some speakers used emotion and dramatic language, and tried to move the audience with such techniques, while other speakers were sober and even, and shunned emotion.

Handle Criticism Gracefully

One of the traits of immature leadership is the inability to handle criticism. Mandela welcomed criticism and learned from it. This is what made him the great leader that he was. He was not quick to oppose or deal severely with those who accused him wrongfully. He understood the right time to respond or whether to respond at all. Those who become great will recognize that no leader is above making mistakes, or taking on criticism for those mistakes. A great leader can hear criticism and not be easily angered or annoyed. They remain calm under criticism.

At first, I was astonished by the vehemence—candor—with which people criticized the regent. He was not above criticism—in fact, he was often the principal target of it. But no matter how flagrant the charge, the regent simply listened, not defending himself, showing no emotion at all.

Be A Consensus Builder Rather Than A Majority-Rules Seeker

A great leader and relationship builder understands that majority rule may get the job done, but building consensus among parties is the key to greater progress and advancement toward a goal. Everyone will feel included and understand that they have an important part to play. Majority rule excludes the small portion who disagreed, but consensus shows respect to all viewpoints and brings diverse people together. Consensus building is harder and takes more time, but pays off in the long run. Mandela learned the following from the conferences led by “the Regent:”

The meetings would continue until some kind of consensus was reached. They ended in unanimity or not at all. Unanimity, however, might be an agreement to disagree, to wait for a more propitious time to propose a solution.

Learn To Be An Active Listener

A great leader recognizes that he or she may have built-in biases, and assumptions that may not be correct. They are not “know-it-alls.” They understand the value of listening without immediately responding. They value what they can learn in a discussion versus winning a debate. Mandela understood that by being a good listener, he was able learn a few things he had not previously considered. He saw that by being a good listener, who genuinely seeks to understand, one can more easily reach a consensus point of view. He wrote about how he reached decisions and built consensus. Mandela stated,

As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place. I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes my opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion.

Adopt these principles for life and you will become an exceptional relationship builder. You will succeed in your vision as well as help others succeed, prosper, and live out their dreams.
By: Eric Betts
Assistant Director, Curtis Coleman Center for Religious Studies and Ethics at Athens State University

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