I met Nelson Mandela. Here’s what I think he would say to your CEO today

I met Nelson Mandela. Here’s what I think he would say to your CEO today
  • PublishedJuly 18, 2021

As we celebrate the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, Africa and the world are at a crucial point. Anne Pratt examines the ways in which Mandela’s qualities of bold moral courage, elevated thinking and multiple intelligences can help us bring about positive transformation.

“The fish rots from the head,” but we have a choice. Pondering the recent civic unrest that is ripping apart my homeland of South Africa in recent weeks, I saw comparisons to the growing global unrest we see worldwide. Even America, once the moral and courageous democratic beacon of hope worldwide, the land of the free and home of the brave, has had its share of social reckoning the past year. What is going on?

As we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18th, it struck me that South Africa, Africa, America, and much of the world today exist in a meaningful “Mandela Moment” — namely, an inflection point that calls for bold, radical transformation. Corporate chiefs should lead the way.

We are at a crossroads, and an opportunity awaits.

Over the past year living in my new home of America, I have watched breathtaking news reports representing a parallel universe on both sides of the political divide. I have also engaged with concerned citizens worldwide, who are fearful of the failures of leadership they see around them. From living in South Africa, I recognised the crippling mistrust, fear, hate, and pain that gnaws away at democracy and undermines the very fabric of society — a tangible threat to business and stakeholders alike. As we move forward, will business leaders play it safe or play it smart and exercise leadership in a new courageous way?

In August 2003, at a charitable fund-raising event in Johannesburg, I met Nelson Mandela. I stood next to him, held his hand, and looked into his smiling eyes. He spent 27 years behind bars and had gone from prisoner to peacemaker and then president of a new democracy. He had emerged seeking no vengeance for his captors, conscious of his new role as a nation builder rather than a conquering hero. “Keep up your excellent leadership work in South Africa, Africa, and the world,” he said to me, forever mindful of encouraging ordinary citizens.

Bringing about effective change

Mandela’s words came back to me 17 years later as I reflected on the human struggle and strife across the African continent, America, and the Middle East. I wept as I watched the brutal burning of South Africa. In the US, I felt deep despair as I watched the video of George Floyd’s murder.

I felt numbed by the subsequent hatred and violence of the insurrection and the ongoing fight to protect democratic, constitutional ideals. I experienced White privilege apprehension when driving through the grandeur of Beverly Hills, conscious of the countless homeless just a few miles away. “Poverty is man-made,” Mandela said. Not dissimilar to my drive down the N2 highway from Cape Town’s world-class airport, past overcrowded shacks (huts) to the opulent Atlantic seaboard. I reflected upon the struggles under apartheid in South Africa, Africa, and the world today.

Although the anti-apartheid movement spanned every corner of the world and every sector of society, it was ultimately the divestment of US companies from South Africa and the loyal support of African countries that tipped the scales in eradicating apartheid. More than 200 US companies cut economic ties, resulting in the loss of $1bn in direct investment, capital flight, currency devaluation, and double-digit inflation. This economic plight coupled with Pan-African pressure and local resistance efforts spelled the end for South Africa’s race-based system.

However, the business community – then and now – is still the key to effective social change. Despite the twin moment of despair and hope and the unrest in South Africa today, I am hopeful that Mandela’s leadership vision can still call to action the sharp minds of African corporate leaders to help remedy and heal divided nations. I learned from Mandela that significant challenges and the “impossible” are doorways to excellence.

Recovering the moral high ground

Mandela’s iconic appeal may have stemmed from charisma and humility but is firmly rooted in his disciplined, reflective evolution of self, nine multiple intelligence types, and unwavering moral courage that went beyond popularism.

My deep-dive interviews with more than 10,000 C-suite leaders during his presidency and beyond and conversations with Harvard Professor Howard Gardner further confirmed my experience. Mandela’s nine intelligence types (beyond IQ and EQ), including practical, physical, social, cultural, and spiritual intelligence, were vital in healing South Africa’s deep divides.

For example, Mandela used his spiritual intelligence to forgive his oppressors after his 27-year-long imprisonments and invited his prison warders to his inauguration. These were crucial in uniting and building a nation of peace, diversity, inclusion, and belonging. However, it was Mandela’s elevated thinking, self-transformed mind, and mental ability to define himself independently from any one group (while knowing we are all interdependent) that nurtured his transformation.

Mandela’s bold and moral courage, elevated thinking, and multiple intelligences are strategies that any corporate boardroom can adopt today to return their country to the moral high ground it once enjoyed. Four American presidents and the 184 international and local dignitaries from more than 160 countries who attended Mandela’s funeral in 2013 saw this potential.

Harnessing Mandela’s boldness

Imagine Nelson Mandela on your Board. Mandela would say, you have a duty, a responsibility, and importantly, a strategic business opportunity. He would listen actively to learn, absorb, and integrate, speak last, disagree with firmness, respect, and dignity. He would even listen to overt racist opinions and proposals.

Mandela would persuade you to re-evaluate your business strategy, lead with purpose and profit to create sustainable shared value, and deliver economic and social impact. He would urge you to courageously put your name to political, economic, and social reforms and leverage your powerful financial position to support moral lawmakers, protect your constitution and the rule of law. He would stress the CEO and the Board’s need to take charge of this business transformation, report back frequently and publicly, and identify champions of change enlisted within.

Mandela would encourage gender, and minority group representation at all levels, equal pay, and fast-track minority representations on all interview panels to win the war for talent. He would insist his Board and executives experience the power of proximity, visit relevant stakeholder community sites, have difficult conversations with themselves and marginalised groups, and ask questions, such as: “What is it like to be a minority person? Take us through a day in your life at home and in your community? What is it like to work here?” Lastly, he would thank each Board member personally, including the tea person and all supporting staff.

Imagine your country with multiple Mandelas – within the corporate, political, and civic realms – but pioneered by corporate chiefs with the power of their purses. So they could harness the same mental powers and moral boldness that once changed a nation and inspired the world.

Do you have the mental mindset, multiple intelligences, and moral character to see your country and Africa through this next challenging phase of history? And are you willing to do the hard work to look inside and transform yourself? To build new mental muscles and backbone to lean in and step up? Fear holds many people back, but as Mandela said: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” So, what first step will you take to play it smart, position your corporations and this nation for the future, and help Africa heal? This moment is your “Mandela Moment”.

Africa is counting on you.

Anne Pratt is the upcoming author of “Mandela’s Leadership Blueprint”. She’s a multi-award-winning businesswoman and a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative fellow. She spent 20 years combining business strategy and global executive leadership research, plus transformational Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) strategies, knowledge, and practice in leading Board rooms for companies operating in South Africa, Africa, and internationally.

Written By
Anne Pratt

Anne Pratt is a Harvard fellow, a multi-award-winning businesswoman and author of upcoming Mandela’s Leadership Blueprint.

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