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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What Characterizes a Great Leader?

With the death of Nelson Mandela, we have lost more than a statesman. Yesterday, at his funeral, President Obama paid tribute to him in a speech that should be heard by many more than attended that funeral (see it here:'s+eulogy+of+Mandela&FORM=VIRE3#view=detail&mid=D07D33D74D69F5EBBCA4D07D33D74D69F5EBBCA4 or read it here:   President Obama hailed Mandela as “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”  Those words got me thinking about what makes a great leader like Nelson Mandela.

What may have been missed, or at least overshadowed, yesterday was Mandela’s early activity as a protestor.  Great leaders seem to have a sense of societal dysfunction at an early age, and they have the need to confront the power behind the many injustices that perpetuate inequality and injustice.  As early as his student years at Fort Hare University he was asked to leave (1939) because of his involvement in a boycott against university policies by the Students’ Representative Council.  Perhaps he was beginning to take seriously at about age 21, the meaning of his tribal name: “Rolihalah” -- “troublemaker. “  So, he moved to Johannesburg where he experienced the apartheid system that forbade the black population to vote, travel without permission, or to own land.  He worked as a guard at a mine and then as a clerk at a law firm.  By correspondence courses, he completed his degree at the University of South Africa and began to study law at the University of Witwatersrand in Alexandra.

After joining the African National Congress in 1943, along with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sislu, he helped form the Youth League of the ANC in 1944.  In 1952, at age 34, he opened the first black legal firm in South Africa, providing free or low-cost legal services to many South Africans who, because of their race, were without legal representation.   Mandela was prominent in 1952 in the ANC’s Defiance Campaign.  In 1955, the Freedom Charter adopted by the Congress of the People, called for equal rights and a program of anti-apartheid protest.  In 1956 on December 5th, he was accused, along with 155 other political activists, and charged with High Treason.  Following the High Treason Trials of 1956-61, he and all others were acquitted.  By 1960, he went into hiding and formed an underground military group advocating armed resistance and by 1961 was the leader of the newly formed Umkhontoat guerrilla movement.  He was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years in prison but escaped and went on the run.  On June 12, 1964, he was re-captured and convicted of sabotage and treason and sentenced to life imprisonment, initially at Robben Island where he would be kept for 18 years.  On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of incarceration.  (Taken from a Timeline of his life at

He was a protester against the white power that crippled the nation and imprisoned his people.  He was a fighter against apartheid and against the regime that maintained that abomination. At one point, he was associated with the Communist Party, and, the political organization which he joined in his younger years - the African National Congress -- was listed as a terrorist group by the Reagan administration.  He was a prisoner because he disobeyed the unjust laws of the land under apartheid.   His restraint on the use of force against his enemies was admirable, but his acknowledgment of a need to use force was timely, and that is one of those virtues possessed by leaders: they understand the need for correct timing and for a strategic use of power, whether violent or non-violent.  He also understood the strength of symbolism  as well as the necessity of putting words into actions, and having them coincide. 

Being more than a statesman involves some characteristics that not everyone possesses. One of those is idealism.  One cannot be a great leader without a vision of what could be.  I suppose one could say that the achievement of that vision takes a lot of stubbornness as well.  But, I suspect, with great leaders, it is patience combined with a long-term view that is characteristic.  He knew that his agenda would not be achieved in the short term because he knew beyond doubt that his enemies, his allies, other nations, and he himself would have to change and influence change at the same time over a substantial period of time.

Prison for 27 years was just one more step in the process, albeit a difficult test of patience.  But, when he got out, he began pursuing his goals right away, just as though time had stood still.  As he himself said, prison provided much time for reflection and thinking.  It was a time of honing his goals and his strategies and his ideas.  Perhaps all great leaders experience a time of testing and honing of their plans and their skills.  When he emerged from prison at age 70, he was not the same man who went into prison.   He had learned greater patience.  He had learned to be more pragmatic in relation to his long-term vision.  He had learned to bless those who opposed him and even how to draw enemies to him, as he did with his own prison guard, and the former President of the South African Republic, F.W. de Klerk. He had learned to look inward- as President Obama said we all must do - to determine what he must become in order to achieve his vision of how things could be. 

However, what comes through most vividly to me is his understanding of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.  As the spiritual and actual father of a new country, on the verge of civil war, he spoke and acted toward his former enemies and incarcerators with the attitude that hatred would be poisonous, that forgiveness and magnanimity would have healing power.  With lesser mortals, like those who hate, there is no understanding of what that hate does to an individual, a family, a neighborhood, a city, a country.  They do not understand the pernicious, cancerous nature of bigotry and hate that manifests itself in ways that are harmful to other people, and to themselves. For some reason, a psychological and spiritual blindness sets in that clouds perceptions and relationships.  Thus, all of their relationships, including their knowledge of themselves, become tainted and diminished.  Their words and actions betray them, for hatred and bigotry infect their lives and leave them without the human milk of kindness to guide their actions.  In contrast, great leaders seem to understand the concept of being bound together by mutual responsibility and interdependence.

It is healthy and good that South Africans combine celebration with the trappings of memorial and of mourning.  They emphasize, not so much the idea of loss, but the concept of “transition.”  The departed becomes an ancestor and an example for one’s own life.  Thus, the spirit of the departed lives on, not just in and through individuals, but within the community or society.  This is a concept which Americans could use in their inadequate approach to death as eternal loss.

Finally, there is that characteristic which is very difficult to define, but which all great leaders possess, or which is often attributed to them by admirers.  Charisma is defined in the dictionary as “a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires allegiance and devotion.”  It apparently consists of grace, beauty, kindness, charity, and “showing favor to.”  After hundreds of world leaders showed up yesterday at the funeral, one might take this as an indicator of the charismatic attractiveness of this man.

What can be said to those who want to denigrate the achievements of this father of his country – a man described as a combination of many of the great leaders of our own country and of the world – by concentrating solely on his being a communist sympathizer and a man listed by the Reagan administration as belonging to a terrorist organization (the African National Congress)?  We need to say very little.  His life said it all.  Their negative assessments speak volumes about their character.   Mandela himself would have refrained from negativity and shown them his grace and kindness as a response.  His character is what matters, and it now inspires devotion far beyond his beloved homeland.