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?

Being Late. Is it good business etiquette?

“Etiquette means behaving yourself a little better than is absolutely essential”

Will Cuppy.

Manners is about respect for other people, whether in business or in a social setting. It is not old-fashioned to have good manners. It has nothing to do with ‘fashion’ or ‘generation’.

Is it OK to be late for a meeting or an appointment?

Too often in business, people run late for meetings and when they arrive, are often ill prepared. They think nothing of drifting into a meeting, 5, 10 or 15 minutes after starting time.

Professional managers do not find this acceptable.

I was recently at a meeting where 6 people were kept waiting in a meeting for 20 minutes, until one team member idled their way in, unprepared and 20 minutes late. That equals 6 people times 20 minutes each or 120 minutes wasted. Yes, 2 hours wasted. How much has that cost the business?

The best thing to do to prevent this wastage is to start the meeting without them. They are unlikely to be late next time.

Although cost is a factor, it is the lack of respect for the other six people in the meeting that is also important, whether you are their manager or the business owner is not relevant.

This lack of respect can flow through the whole organisation and it can tell you a lot about the values being promoted within an organisation.

There are other actions in meetings that are NOT acceptable and show lack of respect:

Making and taking phone calls during meeting. It is both rude and disrespectful.

  1. Checking emails or texts during a meeting.
  2. Not being prepared.

If you can’t give the meeting your time, don’t attend. It is as simple as that.

This manifests itself in other ways. Failure to return phone calls or reply to emails is just plain rude. It is like someone saying good morning to you and you ignoring them. In my experience, most of the people who are late for meetings are generally the same people who are not prepared for meetings and check their texts and take and make phone calls during the meeting.

With important meetings, I always try and be 5 minutes early just in case there is a problem. If you are unavoidably late, call or text 15 minutes before the scheduled time. Its good manners and also shows respect. Much more can be achieved when you show respect. If you show respect, in most cases it will be returned not only making your job easier but by achieving a constructive outcome for the business.

Before I went into business I worked for a business owner who was extremely successful and wealthy. He always opened the door for you, allowing you to enter and leave first and was never late for meetings. Even when we had company team gym sessions, he always made sure he was the last person to take a shower. It goes without saying he was highly respected and managed an exceptionally successful business.

We all lead ‘busy lives’. It’s a cop-out to use that as an excuse. Do you really think that your time is more important than someone else’s?

Apparently much of the success achieved by Nelson Mandela in finally toppling apartheid in South Africa was his ability to treat everybody with respect, including his prison guards on Robben Island. I can remember watching a TV documentary program on Mandela, where he was described as giving people his undivided attention and time. It made people feel valued and important. In the TV program there was a section graphically showing Mandela publically chastising the then President, Thabo Mbeke when he showed a lack of respect for arriving late to a meeting he was to address where Mandela was also a guest of honour.

Remember good etiquette and manners pays off………….so as a business owner, manager or supervisor are you showing people adequate respect?