"It is a sad fact of our times that in spite of the huge advances... of humankind, poverty and inequality remain features of all societies" said Nelson Mandela on 28th September 2000 as he closed the Labour party's centenary conference. The speech was delivered with his trademark humour, humility, heart and razor sharp ethics. I have never met the man, not even come close, but simply witnessing his speeches, even on YouTube 13 years later, it is impossible not to be deeply moved. What is most striking about the speech though, is not the power of the orator, that was to be expected; it is the cheerful applause offered by our fallen political heroes: Blair, Brown and co. Youthful forty somethings are publicly belly laughing as you can only do with the self-confidence of political youth, great poll ratings and no idea of what the future holds. They were lucky to get Mandela when they did, as he famously felt betrayed by Tony Blair's decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq three years later.
Why is it that so many of our political giants, from Obama to Blair, let us down? And what is it about Mandela that made him somehow immune to the public image damage that is the standard bi-product of political office?
When Mandela came to office in 1994 he had two aims: reconciliation, and prosperity for all. On the former, and almost certainly most important goal, his achievements were in the words of Bill Clinton "unique and outstanding". His ability to hold his own pain and that of his peoples, and stay doggedly focused on reconciliation as an essential foundation for building a peaceful South Africa is heart-breakingly powerful. The Mandelaesque features of focus, determination, humility and heart do not emerge out of a black box; psychologists show us that such invaluable characteristics can be learnt.
Just last year Harvard Business Review published their top 10 leadership 'must reads', one of which outlines the stages of development that all our leaders pass through. Written by David Rooke and Bill Torbert, the paper offers both a clear explanation of why Mandela was great, and why so many of the rest of our leaders fall short. The paper explains how Mandela's qualities can be learnt, but that 85% of our current leaders, in business and politics lack these qualities.
I am currently writing a book called Anti Hero looking at why this is. At it's heart it seems to be because we value informative over transformative learning. Informative learning is acquiring more knowledge, transformative learning is changing who you are; few people make the distinction but it is crucial. Professor Bill Torbert explains that "One of the biggest leadership mistakes is to prioritise learning more stuff over improving the quality of your attention". He says that this approach is akin to "filling up the hard drive on the same old computer, without paying attention to computing advances" - and that most leaders are "still operating like Commodore 64s with overloaded hard drives".
Mandela repeatedly said 'I want people to remember I am a normal person with faults like anyone else'. But it is undeniable he led an extraordinary life, and what made it all the more special was how he grew as a man in response to it. There is a saying that 'in response to a crisis people transcend or they descend'. That is, they either rise above the current challenge and find new people, practices and ideas with which to make progress, or they turn inwards, and rely on old trusted people, practices and ideas. Time and again Mandela faced crisis in his life and time again he chose to transcend. Be it moving from peaceful to armed protest, or wearing the springbok's shirt for the Rugby World Cup final. Whether or not it was his 18 years on Robben Island that fostered his deep well of compassion, we may never know. But what we do know is "it didn't break him it made him stronger". His strength wasn't some kind of rigid unplayable steel, or indeed a better quality of Teflon Tony. His strength came from a deep knowing of real pain and suffering which paradoxically makes life both more momentous and lighter. Momentous enough to hold and heal not just his nation but the broken hearts so many of us bear, and light enough to introduce himself to the Labour party in 2000 as 'a pensioner from the colonies'.
We don't though need to face the scale of crises Mandela did to transform ourselves. There are everyday things we confront, disagreements with family members, and the daily tragedies offered up by 24hr news, that offer us a potent practice to build our muscle of transcendence. Through the Anti Hero project I have identified a growing band of leaders around the world who are doing just this.
Lao-Tzu said that "He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire". Let us support this by remembering Mandela not as an extraordinary man above us all, but as an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. A man we can all aspire to be.