Mandela and leadership: Lessons for every business and government leader

 

Daily FT

By Gerard Muttukumaru

Former South African President and one of the greatest moral leaders of our age has left us. In addition to leading the ant-apartheid struggle in South Africa, his only real qualification was that he was in jail for 27 years!

Once set free, the first thing he did was forgive those who imprisoned him and begin the process of reconciliation between the minority white population and the majority black population. What lessons can every leader in business and government learn from him? Here are some.

Lessons for leaders

Leaders must lead by example. If this does not happen, leadership development efforts will either fail or not deliver the desired results.

Never make a promise you cannot keep. Sometimes things do go wrong. If you cannot keep a promise you have made to someone, explain why you could not keep it. Do not blame anyone else. Accept responsibility. Always keep your word. Keeping your word defines who you are as a person. What you do, not just say, defines what you are as a person. This was at the core of Mandela.

The Greek Philosopher Diogenes went around Greece looking for one honest person. He did not find one. Will Diogenes find one moral leader in Sri Lanka today? I don’t know.

A few years ago, I was invited to address selected 170 male and female student leaders from four of the leading schools in Colombo, on “What does it take to excel and make a real difference in the new global economy?” When I asked the audience to identify one leader in Sri Lanka who they trusted, respected and admired and would follow without any reservation, they could not name one! This was so sad! Four students identified their parents…

My articles in 2011 on ‘Lessons from the Galleon Insider Trading and Raj Rajaratnam Saga’ and ‘Do the Right Thing’ was picked up by the global press and circulated in business and government organisations worldwide including the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Mandela always did the right thing. This does not mean that he never made a mistake. He did as a human being. He always admitted his mistakes. Moral leaders always strive to do the right thing no matter what the cost to self. This is the very essence of leadership in business and government.

Only one life to live

Mandela was in his third marriage at the time of his death. He would have been cast aside in India where a second and third marriage is really not accepted by society, especially for a woman. On this score, Sri Lanka is ahead!

“Leaders must lead by example. If this does not happen, leadership development efforts will either fail or not deliver the desired results. Never make a promise you cannot keep. Sometimes things do go wrong. If you cannot keep a promise you have made to someone, explain why you could not keep it. Do not blame anyone else. Accept responsibility. Always keep your word. Keeping your word defines who you are as a person. What you do, not just say, defines what you are as a person. This was at the core of Mandela”

One of the chapters in the Sri Lanka edition of my book ‘How to Make a Marriage, Family and Relationship Last – a guide for intended and married couples’ is titled ‘Letting go and learning to love again’. In so many cultures like Sri Lanka, spouses stay in a marriage that they should not be in largely because of the social stigma. They think that they are being “moral” and tend to look down upon those who end their marriage. Sometimes, a marriage must end for reasons discussed in my book after all attempts to save it fail and one or both of the spouses are miserable. You only have one life to live. Enjoy it.

Doing the right thing

Warren Bennis, the leadership guru, who was the Honorary Chairman of my organisation at its inception in 1999 in California, was noted for the following observation on leadership. “Leaders do the right things. Managers do things right.”

Making the right choices in an organisation is critical to achieving organisational excellence and its objectives. However, there is a huge difference between doing the right things in business and doing the right thing in individual and organisational behaviour. Doing the right things in an organisation has to do with business. Doing the right thing in life has to do with moral leadership.

Business acumen is critical in any organisation. But this alone does not create an enduring and sustainable organisation where there is a bond of trust between leader and follower, between top management, the mid-level and the front line. Many business leaders excel in ‘the art of the deal’. But this does not build an enduring organisation.

Mandela was revered, loved and trusted by those in power and the totally powerless in the slums of Soweto. Leadership must be earned and be based on love and respect not fear. Can we think of any similar leader in business or Government in Sri Lanka?

Examine our everyday behaviour

Mandela would have us examine our everyday behaviour. Return every phone call. Respond to every email or text from a fellow human being. Do not respond only to people you want to respond to. Do not pre-judge people. Do not refuse to meet another human being whether a king, queen, prince or beggar. Do unto others what you want done to you.

I see so much written about improving productivity and performance in organisations. It is not just about inputs and outputs. At the core of any organisation is a human being. Leaders must follow Mandela’s example and focus totally on bringing people together and building them up, not putting them down. Mandela even used the World Rugby Cup in 1995 to bring his nation together.

When South Africa won the cup, he went to the field to congratulate the Captain, Francois, and the team. He shook the white captain’s hand and said: “Thank you Francois for what you have done for your country.” The emotional captain replied: “No, Mr. President, thank you for what you have done for our country.” The entire audience, including the white spectators, cheered Mandela, the first Black African President. This was unthinkable 10 years before! He was uniting the nation. Respect was earned.

Let every organisation in business and government re-examine its leadership development efforts. What kind of human beings and leaders are our schools and universities producing? Form Infosys Chairman, Narayanamurthy, once said: “Infosys is not in the business of producing great products. We are in the business of developing great people who develop great products.”

[The writer is Chairman, Centre for Global Leadership Worldwide LLC (USA) and Adjunct Professor of Global Business, California. He can be reached via gerardmuttukumaru@yahoo.com.]
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