Today I'm gonna try and change the world not for me, but for those I'll leave behind…
These couple of lines from Today I’m Gonna Try to Change the World, a song by Scottish-Canadian singer, Johnny Reid came to my mind earlier this month when I heard that Nelson Mandela had died. While the world knew that Mandela had been very sick for a long time, there is always shock in the finality of the news and one realizes that a great man has shuffled from this mortal coil.
Growing up in Canada, part of the colonial commonwealth, the turmoil in South Africa had a very high profile. Pending trade sanctions and frequent protests on our university campuses were daily features in our newspapers and our evening news. Some in Canada felt that these were issues for the South African people to figure out on their own, while others had vested business interests to protect. For the most part Canadian opinion was squarely against the South African government and anathema that was the apartheid policy.
I was in London in the summer of 1988 when world opinion was clearly coalescing against the South African government. London was the biggest city I had ever visited and to see tens of thousands of people protesting in Trafalgar Square was both overwhelming and exhilarating. I signed the “free Nelson Mandela” petition several times (vote early, vote often I always say). In June there was the infamous tribute concert at Wembley Stadium marking his 70th birthday and 25th year in jail. This concert was broadcast around the world to an audience of over 600 million people and while it was rumored to have been heavily censored by FOX for the USA audience, it certainly raised the profile of the anti-apartheid cause which ultimately led to Mandela’s release in 1990 and becoming president of the new South Africa in 1994.
Mandela was a study in leadership. While you can’t always choose what happens to you, you can choose how you’re going to react. Mandela could have endured apartheid but instead he chose to oppose it. He put his life on the line for what he believed. Through his protests, civil disobedience and ultimate incarceration, he gained the moral authority to lead. Facing the death penalty on charges of sedition he led off his defense with a lengthy speech which concluded with the famous words:
"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. "— Rivonia Trial Speech
Ultimately sentenced to life in prison, when he was released and became president, he adamantly opposed any retribution against the former regime and the white Afrikaners who had so vehemently and so violently tried to maintain the oppression on the black South African people. Mandela took a longer term view; to achieve his vision, South Africa needed to heal. Any revenge against the former oppressors was not going to serve the greater cause of a better country for everyone. He urged the people to transcend their past rather than wallow in it. He championed truth and reconciliation as a means toward this goal, noting that we cannot change what has already happened, but together we can build the future.
The lesson from Mandela which is particularly instructive for today’s leaders is the fact that at times despite the effort required and the risk to your position, leaders need to elevate people toward a bigger vision. It is relatively easy to lead when things are going well and when you can give people what they want and tell them what they want to hear. The crunch comes when issues emerge and circumstances change and one is required to challenge one's own supporters and to make them realize that a shift to a new paradigm is not only the right thing to do but is also necessary.
Just as nature abhors an imbalance, human history shows that injustice and inequities will not stand in the long run. Rational people realize that change is inevitable and that you cannot for long stifle people’s desire for fundamental justice. This does not mean that individuals and institutions will not try. History is rife with examples of leaders who try to gain or retain power by setting up one group of people against another. They lull their followers into believing that with unjust laws and brute force they can create and maintain societies in which one group is subordinate to the other because of their sex, race, religion, ethnicity or political view. While at their core, these misguided leaders and their followers realize that their positions are unsustainable; this does not stop them from creating untold horrors in the form of deceit, torture and death and destruction in all-out war to promote their twisted visions for the short term. Apartheid and the segregation policies that led to the US civil rights movement are two recent examples where leaders set about to promulgate untenable positions. What is fundamentally disappointing today is that even with these great examples we still have “leaders” who continue to seek power and retain the status quo by appealing to the lowest common denominator and by essentially fooling people into believing that their current reality is sustainable. They lack courage and conviction and do not appear particularly bothered that they will be shown to be on the wrong side of history. They will be harshly judged by contemporary standards. Change is hard and the hard-work of change takes exceptional leadership to motivate a critical mass of people to do what they know in their hearts to be right despite the cost in wealth or position. Great leaders appeal to the better angels of our nature and take us on the journey to our higher selves - somewhere we might not go on our own.
Given the transient nature of living and life, leadership is somewhat synonymous with stewardship and good stewardship requires that whatever your circumstances, you leave things in better shape than you found them. By this measure, this month marked the passing of a great leader.