Leaders are not just born to the role. They are born, then made — and sometimes unmade — by their own actions. A leader who is not in tune with the followership soon becomes a leader in limbo and, sooner rather than later, withers. Nelson Mandela never fell into limbo as a leader.
I am not likely to cite anything new in the moments of his life. What I seek to do is reconstruct the record to reveal the inner workings of attuned leadership in the hands of a master.
Throughout his political life, Mandela demonstrated Aristotle’s principles of practical wisdom, concentrating on the common good and putting his leadership skills at the service of his followers.
During his long sojourn behind bars, it was obviously impossible to stay in touch directly with the masses. He showed extraordinary warmth and understanding towards fellow prisoners — not only ANC supporters, but those of the rival Pan Africanist Congress and, in later days, the Black Consciousness movement too. His personal sincerity and acumen as a man, and his political instinct of responsiveness as a leader, lent him an all-encompassing aura.
These qualities were to serve the cause well when he was released. He became the standard-bearer of the liberation movement in negotiations with the white government. If any one person could bridge the gap between the “structures” of white nationalism and black liberation, it was Mandela.
Just how did he accomplish this? His leadership rested on five supporting pillars:
- Being self-attuned as a leader and emotionally intelligent;
- Being attuned to the situation, knowledgeable, capable and astute;
- Being attuned to the needs and aspirations of followers;
- Being attuned to the moral imperatives of integrity, efficacy and humility; and
- Being attuned to history, the present and destiny.
At every step along the way, the leader should be aware of conative feelings as well as cognitive mental processes that are present in him and in the followership. The English word conative, by the way, came into psychological parlance relatively recently to apply to the aspirational aspects of our human nature. It is drawn from the Latin verbconari, which means to attempt or to strive. It thus implies that leadership is a striving to fulfil the aspirations of the followership. By focusing also on cognition, the leader is emotionally and intellectually attuned to the followership.
Very little analysis has been done about why Mandela was so effective. He represented a collective ethic of reconciliation for a nation that was still deeply conflicted. The divided races wanted to learn to live together, but they needed a leader who could symbolise this yearning; Mandela did that for them. There was nothing abstract or mystical about his attuned leadership. It was down-to-earth.
The personal qualities Mandela brought to the presidency included:
- Insight: seeing the world from the followership’s vantage point and embracing their world views in a nonjudgmental manner;
- Inspiration: engendering a sense in followers of self-worth, pride in current status and hopefulness in the future. In the relationship of leader and led, it is vital to strike a balance between reality and potentiality;
- Commitment: ardently pursuing an agreed course of action but remaining willing to be flexible and respond to changes in the environment or expectations; and
- Probity: assuring the followers that the leader can be held accountable. Probity is the ethical imperative to remain upright and honest in the service of the followership and behave in a manner that is beyond reproach.
The attuned leader is a reflective person for whom human relationships are of primary importance – hence, empathy and identification with the followership will typify his actions. The attuned leader is also a student of human affairs with a developed sense of the forces at work under the surface. The attuned leader wins trust and maintains it by producing results that are in line with the deep human needs of followers. A sense of efficacy in the leader combines confidence in the power to do good with competence to carry desires into effect. Trust can easily be broken by promising too much, or delivering too little.
It is fundamentally important that the leader be a student of human nature and human reality. You cannot have an ignorant leader who has gone through no process of leadership development and who is grossly incapable of sensing the aspirations of the followership. Again, demagogues may dominate through sheer force of will, but this does not qualify as leadership in the normative sense. Both sensitivity and good sense are required if one is to be a principled leader.
In recent times, theorists of leadership, especially in business, have come around to the idea that emotional harmony between the ethically motivated leader and the followership is the single most important ingredient of success.
Despite the great value that we seem to place on an intellect devoid of emotions, our emotions are quite literally more powerful than our intellect. In moments of emergency, our emotional centres actually commandeer the rest of the brain, so leaders who are not emotionally intelligent — who cannot keep their emotional impulses in check or correctly read the emotional temperature of a given situation — will simply not be effective. Biologically speaking, the art of resonant leadership interweaves our intellect and our emotions in a way that inspires people to move forward towards a common goal — regardless of the situation.
There has to be an underlying sense of human community to unite leaders in their quest for a common goal. Being self-aware and attuned to one’s own inner processes, drives, doubts, hopes an emotional ties is vital to attuned leadership.
Emotionalism on its own is not a trustworthy basis for leadership. It must be balanced by ethics and intellect. Western literature on leader-follower relationships has sometimes idolised force of character and pure charisma as the essence of leadership. History has taught that there are serious risks in following a charismatic leader like Hitler. Hero worship is not the path to common good. What the leader wills and the followers want may be dangerously out of tune with public virtue. When this happens, the correct words for it are demagoguery and mob rule. Those who lend themselves to such power play become toxic leaders.
Balance always characterised Mandela. Emotional appeal and good sense played out equally in many of his public appearances — including those where he improvised. British entrepreneur Richard Branson described how, at the unveiling of a statue to Steve Biko in East London in 1997, then-president Mandela seized the occasion to apply crowd pressure to place rival South African movements under an obligation to improve their relationships with the ruling ANC. Seated beside him on the platform was Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a troublesome partner who was then the minister of home affairs in the government of national unity and also leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, against which some ANC formations had frequently engaged in bloody conflict.
Branson saw what happened: “Mandela stood up and just ad-libbed. The speech he gave was fantastic, turning to each person on the stage and then asking the crowd: ‘Shouldn’t we be working together as one?’ And the crowd were shouting ‘Yes!’ and the other leaders were squirming in their shoes! Most people see him only as a grand statesman doing things, but it was interesting to see what a wily politician he could be.”
This was a moment of dignity, not demagoguery. Mandela reminded those on the stage that they, like he, were leaders who could induce their followers to prefer peace to violence. He expressed for one and all the yearning for peace, security and freedom from fear – a yearning that was felt, no doubt equally, by the rival leaders and by the crowd who had come to hear Mandela and celebrate the legacy of Biko. His greatness consisted of being able to sense the profound longings that people have for a higher purpose and being able to speak directly to this desire.
The leader as pioneer is a familiar figure in literature. I have tried to conceptualise this role in terms of a model of leadership that makes the individual and the group equally responsible for initiating change and achieving outcomes.
Leaders can redefine institutional structures but do not have a free hand to do so: the true instigators of change are the communities from which leaders spring and to whom they must be responsive.
Instead of regarding South Africa’s racial divides as entrenched structures, firmly anchored in prejudice and class, Mandela intervened personally at key points in history to overcome division and conflict. He could not have done this without collective backing. Yet, secure in the knowledge that the followership trusted him, he confidently stepped beyond immediate expectations to pioneer a new course into the future. His philosophy of leadership was a shining example of ubuntu in practice. He accorded human dignity to all, and based his decisions on an ethical commitment to the common good.