Lessons for managers from Nelson Mandela

Lessons for managers from Nelson Mandela

“It always seems impossible until it’s done”

Nelson Mandela

What can Nelson Mandela teach us about being a good manager?

During December, I was planning to write a blog about what businesses should do over the Festive Season in preparation for the new calendar year. However, with the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela provided an opportunity to reflect on what Mandela could teach us in our roles as business owners, managers and supervisors. Mandela was an international hero and was universally revered around the world as a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality against great odds.

Despite over 25 years in gaol, Mandela came out of prison not seeking revenge. Instead he oversaw the relatively peaceful transfer of power in South Africa.

As Archbishop Tutu, stated:

“Could you imagine if he had come out of gaol a different man, very angry and baying for the blood of his former oppressors? We would not have made it to first base.”

Whilst I am tempted to list dozens of things Mandela could teach us as managers about leadership, it is always best to keep it simple – so here are my three top picks:

1. Integrity

Despite often being called a ‘living saint’ Mandela steadfastly refused to be recognised as such. In his books and speeches, Mandela went out of his way to point out the dangers of deifying him. He admitted to having many flaws, to having made many mistakes and to having had his integrity tested many times.

In 1985, Mandela was offered a conditional release from by President Botha if he renounced violence and obeyed the law (just racial laws). Mandela did not fall for this very transparent gesture. Whilst he desired freedom after decades in prison, he did not betray his principles, and his long struggle for democracy. Mandela replied as follows:

“What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned?  What freedom am I being offered if I must ask permission to live in an urban area?  Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”

It was almost 5 more years before he was unconditionally released from prison. In the end, history showed that Mandela’s integrity overcame all obstacles when he  became the first democratically elected leader in South Africa. Integrity was combined with another important leadership trait…

2. Perseverance

Despite the seemingly impossible task of obtaining democratic rule in South Africa, Mandela managed to achieve what seemed impossible

 “Perseverance always overcomes resistance”.

How many times in our business life has this occurred? I can remember feeling that a business in which I was a significant shareholder would never sell after 2 failed attempts over 2 years. There were times I was told to ‘give up’, however, when least expected, an overseas buyer which exceeded expectations.

Opportunities often come when least expected, however this takes time, energy, and focus and perseverance.

3. Vision

Mandela had an over-riding vision of a multi-racial South Africa with a strong focus on the future, not the past. He never lost sight of this vision and did not compromise his goals. Whilst suffering in prison he was offered numerous inducements to compromise his position and be released early. He declined.

His actions and words left no doubt as to his vision. Leaders with vision have passionate and dedicated followers.

I can remember asking a managing director what his vision was for the company and the reply was ‘for me to be here next year’. Can you imagine being inspired by such a person?

Integrity, perseverance and vision are all are leadership traits that Mandela can teach us as successful managers. The outpouring of emotions at his funeral from ordinary people (not the dignitaries) is testament to these qualities.

Are these traits important in your job too?

Problems

Problems

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Albert Einstein

Many of us in business are confronted with problems;  whether it is the business failing, parts of the business not performing or relationships at work deteriorating. I suspect that you have agonised about the reasons for the problem.  These reasons are likely to be complex and there are probably no simple solutions.

However, the first step is to admit there is problem.  I have seen many leaders in business refusing to admit that there they have a problem, even though it is obvious to everybody around them (and often to themselves although they refuse to confront it). This problem can be due to ego, ignorance, incompetence or an unwillingness to face reality. It is highly unlikely to go away and is probably only going to get worse and become more complicated as staff and customers begin questioning your judgement and leadership.

Admitting that you have a problem either to yourself, your family or your staff is essential. The second step is critical.  This is where you either become a success or continue to fail to resolve the problem. The failing business person tries to justify the failure – it’s the market, it’s the internet and so on.

As a manager or business owner it is only a problem or a failure if it continues. Like the Albert Einstein quote above which implies we must change something to get the desired result, the status quo is not an option. Do not identify an external reason for the problem as this is a ‘cop out’. You are disowning the problem – ‘it’s the economy’, ‘it’s the high exchange rate’, ‘it’s poor staff’.

The key to success is to take a few steps that will not allow you to justify the problem. The first step is to take action, even if it is just one small step. Using personal fitness as an example, the hardest step in improving your fitness is putting on your gym gear. By taking the first step you are on the way to solving the problem. Momentum has now commenced and this will help solve other problems, both now and in the future.

There is no shame in recognising a problem or failure, providing you do something about it. Learning from mistakes is only common sense. That’s what good leaders do !