09/12/2013 10:48 GMT | Updated 08/02/2014 05:59 GMT


In 2007 Nelson Mandela, together with others, launched The Elders, bringing to fruition a concept started by Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel. The Elders are based on the idea that we need independent guidance and leadership. The members no longer hold public office, they have earned international trust and have 'demonstrated integrity and built a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership.'

These are the conspicuous elders, but I think there are also many more types of elders. I have worked with elders here in the UK, in America and Europe. Most were inconspicuous and hidden, they had to be found. As elders they didn't seek the limelight, they were content with who they were and what they had achieved in their lives. They didn't want to have any status conferred on them.

I was recently at a friends 60th birthday party, and he said because of his age he was now an elder. I have to disagree, for me there are distinctive characteristics which mark out an elder. One of them is not seeking status, another is being content to be unpopular.

When I've worked with indigenous elders around the world, most of them didn't care whether I liked them or not. They definitely did not care whether they liked me or not, and often showed it. As elders they had reached a place where being popular was no longer important. By having this distance they were able to take decisive action, make unpopular but important decisions, and lead through example. What a contrast to our modern day 'leaders'.

They can also show us how to be. One elder watched me teaching, and then said "you're good at leading from the front, in the West that's the way you think it should be done, but to be more effective you need to teach from behind. Let your pupils learn for themselves, don't drag them along".

The more I work with the concept of eldership, the more I believe your age doesn't mean you have reached eldership, it's much more a state of mind. I think some of the most profound leaders and roles models are children who are primary carers for their parents; people who live alternative and constructive lifestyles; men and women who have transcended huge personal difficulties and disasters.

All of these are, for me, elders. Their communality is their ability to forgive and remain positive despite all the odds. Surely that is the pivotal role of Nelson Mandela in all our lives, to transcend the personal story and grasp the bigger picture with compassion and love. A very worthy elder who will live on in all our hearts.