Friday, December 6, 2013

Mandela the pragmatist

One of the problems with putting people up on a pedestal is that they become ethereal. From everything I've read about Nelson Mandela, he was a uniquely confident but humble man. One of his most famous quotes is "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

Far from ethereal, according to his biographer Richard Stengel, Mandela was grounded in the long view while being a master tactician and pragmatist. Here are some excerpts from Stengel's identification of Mandela's 8 lessons of leadership:
Mandela is the closest thing the world has to a secular saint, but he would be the first to admit that he is something far more pedestrian: a politician. He overthrew apartheid and created a nonracial democratic South Africa by knowing precisely when and how to transition between his roles as warrior, martyr, diplomat and statesman. Uncomfortable with abstract philosophical concepts, he would often say to me that an issue "was not a question of principle; it was a question of tactics." He is a master tactician...

His unwavering principle — the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of one man, one vote — was immutable, but almost anything that helped him get to that goal he regarded as a tactic. He is the most pragmatic of idealists.

"He's a historical man," says Ramaphosa. "He was thinking way ahead of us. He has posterity in mind: How will they view what we've done?" Prison gave him the ability to take the long view. It had to; there was no other view possible. He was thinking in terms of not days and weeks but decades. He knew history was on his side, that the result was inevitable; it was just a question of how soon and how it would be achieved. "Things will be better in the long run," he sometimes said. He always played for the long run...

Mandela loved to reminisce about his boyhood and his lazy afternoons herding cattle. "You know," he would say, "you can only lead them from behind." He would then raise his eyebrows to make sure I got the analogy.

As a boy, Mandela was greatly influenced by Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him. When Jongintaba had meetings of his court, the men gathered in a circle, and only after all had spoken did the king begin to speak. The chief's job, Mandela said, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. "Don't enter the debate too early," he used to say...

Mandela was a lawyer, and in prison he helped the warders with their legal problems. They were far less educated and worldly than he, and it was extraordinary to them that a black man was willing and able to help them. These were "the most ruthless and brutal of the apartheid regime's characters," says Allister Sparks, the great South African historian, and he "realized that even the worst and crudest could be negotiated with."...

Mandela believed that embracing his rivals was a way of controlling them: they were more dangerous on their own than within his circle of influence. He cherished loyalty, but he was never obsessed by it. After all, he used to say, "people act in their own interest." It was simply a fact of human nature, not a flaw or a defect. The flip side of being an optimist — and he is one — is trusting people too much. But Mandela recognized that the way to deal with those he didn't trust was to neutralize them with charm...

Mandela is comfortable with contradiction. As a politician, he was a pragmatist who saw the world as infinitely nuanced...Every problem has many causes. While he was indisputably and clearly against apartheid, the causes of apartheid were complex. They were historical, sociological and psychological. Mandela's calculus was always, What is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?...

Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make. In many ways, Mandela's greatest legacy as President of South Africa is the way he chose to leave it. When he was elected in 1994, Mandela probably could have pressed to be President for life — and there were many who felt that in return for his years in prison, that was the least South Africa could do..."His job was to set the course," says Ramaphosa, "not to steer the ship." He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.
While looking for images to go with this post, I was struck by the power of Nelson Mandela's smile. It reaches out and grabs you and is there in his eyes even when not present on his lips.
I believe that Mandela was a truly joyful man. But according to Stengel, that smile had a pragmatic role to play as well.
When Mandela was running for the presidency in 1994, he knew that symbols mattered as much as substance. He was never a great public speaker, and people often tuned out what he was saying after the first few minutes. But it was the iconography that people understood. When he was on a platform, he would always do the toyi-toyi, the township dance that was an emblem of the struggle. But more important was that dazzling, beatific, all-inclusive smile. For white South Africans, the smile symbolized Mandela's lack of bitterness and suggested that he was sympathetic to them. To black voters, it said, I am the happy warrior, and we will triumph. The ubiquitous ANC election poster was simply his smiling face. "The smile," says Ramaphosa, "was the message."
So while we venerate Nelson Mandela, let us not forget that he was a man who was grounded in what it took to engage in the struggle and win. Those are lessons in life and leadership we can all emulate.


  1. Love that bit about leading from behind. Something the GOP and all haters will never understand. Thanks, Smartypants.

  2. You are on fire, Smartypants! Two great posts that help me see more than the anger provoking zombies I see in the media. I need to get more focused and less "rant-y".