Lessons in business from Nelson Mandela

Mandela united a nation and changed the face of Africa forever

Great politicians have much to offer corporate and world leaders who face apparently insurmountable odds in bringing about change.

The way Nelson Mandela navigated his unique place in politics has lessons for corporate and political leaders everywhere. John Carlin and Paddy Miller, who knew Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) leadership well, say Mandela united a nation and changed the face of Africa forever.

John Carlin first met the African leader in 1990, on the day Mandela was released from 27 years in prison. At the time Carlin had only recently arrived in South Africa as bureau chief for the UK’s Independent newspaper, but over the next five years he met with Mandela often.

Their encounters led to two books, Knowing Mandela: A Personal Portrait and Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation. The latter, which focused on the events of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, was later made into the movie Invictus.

“I think he is one of the great leaders of history,” Carlin says.

“The methods he deployed to obtain his objectives as leader are of enormous value to corporate leaders, as they are indeed to politicians, people who manage sports teams, even families.”

Learn More: John Carlin and Paddy Miller talk about Mandela’s leadership genius at a CPA Congress business lunch in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.

Professor Paddy Miller agrees. While not personally close to Mandela, Miller met the ANC leadership when he was commissioned by the World Bank to run a training program for South Africa’s incoming ANC government in 1994.

"For the first time in my life, I ran a management program in which the majority of the participants had spent their formative years in prison!”

As a business management specialist, Miller says that Mandela’s life is a powerful case study in how effective leadership can change minds and achieve outcomes against apparently insurmountable odds.

Now Carlin and Miller are bringing those lessons to political and corporate leaders around the world, including in appearances at CPA Congress later this year.

Turning enemies into allies

Miller and Carlin say Mandela combined an unwavering personal vision with a willingness to find common ground with seemingly irreconcilable opponents.

“You’ve got people on either side of the table who have such different points of view. How do you persuade somebody to take on a third point of view that might enable you to assist them in shifting to a position whereby you can negotiate? And Mandela was really great at doing that,” Miller says.

He also studied his opponents carefully, which gave him the upper hand in negotiations.

“He made a point when he was in prison of getting to know the Afrikaners, the inventors and managers of apartheid,” Carlin explains. “He made a deliberate point of learning to speak Afrikaans in prison. He learnt their history.

“He learnt what kind of people they were: what their strong points were, what their vanities were, and what their weaknesses were. He could put himself in the shoes of the enemy, which was a huge advantage when it came to reaching his goals in negotiation.”

While Mandela was willing to compromise sometimes, to the dismay of his ANC supporters, he never veered from his overall objectives.

“He had a very clear vision of where he was heading and if this meant, at times, confronting those closest to him in the leadership of the ANC, or confronting his own people in a football stadium with 50,000 guys opposed to his position of reconciliation, he never wavered.”

For Carlin and Miller, Mandela’s drive towards unity and consensus was the hallmark of his leadership genius.

“Most politicians seek to divide. Mandela said: ‘We’re going to try and unite the nation’. There are very few people who can do that and succeed,” Carlin reflects.

John Carlin, journalist and author, and Paddy Miller, professor of management, will speak about Mandela’s leadership genius at a 2015 CPA Congress business lunch in Melbourne on 14 October, Brisbane on 16 October and Sydney on 19 October.

The power of symbols

A key element of Mandela’s success was his understanding of the power of symbols and his ability to turn them to advantage. His support for the South African rugby team, the Springboks, in the 1995 World Cup was a turning point on the path to reconciliation.

Explains journalist John Carlin: “He understood that rugby was extremely close to the hearts of the people he had to win over, and that the Springboks were a source of great pride and identity for the Afrikaner people. He made a point of aligning himself with this symbol of Afrikaner pride and identity, which has always traditionally been a hated symbol for his own people, a symbol of the oppression they had endured.”

The Springboks’ victory in the World Cup helped to unify the nation. “What he did through rugby went to the heart of his achievement, which was to get an entire nation to change its mind,” says Carlin.

“He persuaded black people to abandon their entirely comprehensible feelings of revenge and he persuaded white people to abandon their fear of being led by a black president.”

This article is from the August issue of INTHEBLACK

August 2015
August 2015

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