Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
Posted December 6, 2013on:
I am grateful. Grateful that we have lived contemporaneously with Nelson Mandela. With his passing is the celebration of the life, career, activism, and embodiment of the world’s greatest example of leadership to which so many aspire.
Living during the time of Nelson Mandela is like what I would imagine living during Lincoln’s too short life would have been. President Mandela emerged from prison to ascend to the Presidency of the most racially torn country on the planet and declared his unconditional love for the very countrymen who had imprisoned him.
Mandela’s story gives bones to so many concepts of leadership. In honor of his passing, I thought I might share one.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned as a young man and he was not the man we have come to know. He was angry. He was physical. He was not a model prisoner. He fought, he was actively disobedient, and he harbored great, unfocused anger toward his captors.
After a few years of this rebellious behavior, Mandela had an epiphany. He realized he had been imprisoned because of his belief all humans had value. He realized his constant rebellion against the guards was causing him to treat them with less than dignity — the very dignity to which he knew all humans were entitled. He was not living his belief.
He changed. He began treating the guards with respect. He started schooling them since most of the guards were illiterate white men who did not have the benefit of Mandela’s education. He taught them to read and write. He gave them a love of books.
Once he had taught them the basics, he expanded their education. Mandela involved other prisoners in his efforts to “prison school” the guards. He essentially created an academy at Robbins Island for the guards. Remarkably, since the prison jobs were so coveted by a certain segment of the population, he taught generations of families giving them the benefits of an education.
After his imprisonment of 27 years, when he was released and was inaugurated as President of South Africa, Mandela reserved rows of seats at his inauguration ceremony. Those seats were reserved for the prison guards — the very men who had imprisoned him and the same men he had found it within his heart to educate. The reason: Mandela wanted to demonstrate there was no greater power of healing than forgiveness.
I love that story. The very men who held Mandela prisoner for 27 years, who denied his freedom, who denied him his family, who denied him his youth, who denied him his worth were at his inauguration as his special guests. That depth of forgiveness is not of this world.
This story demonstrates his extraordinary depth of leadership and his commitment to a sustainable set of values. When I used this story in leadership training, I then handed out a deck of cards to the participants. On this deck of cards were printed 50-some values — things like family, justice, equality, truth, morality, education, art, etc. I would then ask the participants, usually about 20-30 per session, to tell me those things that were important to them as people and those things they espoused to be in their personal set of sustainable values.
Without fail, the participants would quickly amass a card stack of 20 or 30 cards representing a set of values they personally claimed. Participants always claimed a value set of this size because there is an overriding sense of social desirability associated with claiming values. Much like a Vera Wang gown or a Tom Ford tuxedo, if it doesn’t cost anything most everyone will claim one.
Once the participants sorted to their personally claimed 20 or 30 socially desirable values, I then asked them, “Now, of those values you are claiming, for which values would you spend 27 years in prison?”
Needless to say, the stack of claimed values thinned considerably. Most people ended up with just one card (always “family”) and never more than two or three claimed values for which they would spend 27 years in prison. I would then ask, “Outside of your family, what do you have left?” A vast majority of people, outside of their claimed value of family, have nothing for which they would spend 27 years in prison.
In celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela and in his memory, I put this question to the Widdershin world, “Outside of family, for what values would you be willing to spend 27 years in prison?”
This is an open thread.
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