Real Leaders

How to Awaken Your Inner Mandela

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Anne Pratt from South Africa is both fascinated and excited about the mysterious ingredients that make up a great leader. It inspired her to action during a leadership fellowship at Harvard and has inspired her purpose ever since. It began as a young child aged seven when her mother spent time with her at the Kwa-Zulu Natal Nqutu mission hospital run by two mission doctors near Durban, South Africa and culminated in a meeting with Nelson Mandela.

Pratt met Mandela for the first time in 2003 at an auction fundraiser to mark ten years of South African democracy and his brief words have inspired Pratt to develop a leadership program at Harvard to unlock the inner Mandela she thinks resides inside each one of us.

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Most of us feel helpless to effect meaningful change. Many of us admire Mandela for his courage, ability to forgive and to see beyond discrimination and embrace diversity. Could his transformation from prisoner to president teach us how to become great ourselves? Pondering the facts and challenges of the 21st century during her time at Harvard, coupled with traveling the world, Pratt has identified a dire need for leadership that confronts everyday challenges faced by ordinary people. “We need a new paradigm and new way of leading if we are to address the major problems we face in the 21st Century,” she says.

The day Mandela passed away was remarkable. People from around the world were united in his spirit and generosity. World leaders delivered grand speeches, and ordinary citizens picked up the phone to pledge a few dollars towards a good cause. Class, race and culture disappeared for a brief time and people saw a glimpse of how society might look in an ideal world.

Discussions with Harvard professors confirmed to Pratt that Mandela’s style of leadership was indeed unique in how it resolved some very complex and challenging issues. Core to the “Mandela way” are personal mastery and self-discipline, something that results in a personal transformation that can help equip someone to leverage change on a massive scale. The South African leader was good at adaptive change: Changing the attitudes, hearts and minds of people to get a social system to operate in a new and harmonious way.

Born and educated in South Africa, Pratt arrived at Harvard in 2017 to participate in the Global Advanced Leadership Initiative, a program that aims to unearth an individual’s purpose of where they think they can make a difference in the world, how to scale it and create change globally. She left behind a successful career as managing partner at executive search firm, Memela Pratt & Associates, to pursue a deeper understanding of leadership — the kind that transforms business leaders into world leaders.

Pratt comes from a long line of highly educated, strong, pioneering women. Her grandmother had a science degree and cared about dignity, justice, respect and ethics in the world and her mother took a principled stand against the apartheid government. The leadership legacy had already rubbed off on Pratt, who won the 2009 BWA Nedcor South Africa Businesswoman of the Year Award. 

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” – Nelson Mandela

Her mother took her to a rural mission hospital in Kwa-Zulu Natal, at age seven and Pratt was struck by the success, happiness and unity of the severely under-resourced facility. “Things worked, and they worked well,” recalls Pratt. “Not just on a medical level, but as a center of excellence and inspiration for the community. My mother told me it worked because the people there had a purpose and passion in life.”

Are people born with leadership traits or can they be learned? Pratt’s a firm believer in the latter. While it’s never too late to develop a leadership personality by watching the success of others, early mentorship is a crucial ingredient for improving the self-confidence to lead others. “Having a mentor is not a sign of privilege either,” explains Pratt. “Many leaders I have met around the world, in South Africa and even at Harvard, have come from extremely tough, underprivileged backgrounds. Coming from a wealthy family and a good school is no guarantee you’ll become a leader. Rather, a key finding I have found with leaders is that someone, at some point, believed in them – a teacher, religious leader, relative or community member. Being validated and ‘seen’ is sometimes what it takes to motivate people to greatness.”

Experiences early in life, and people we are exposed to can form solid foundations for becoming a future leader, but transformation can happen at any age. Mandela went to jail an angry man. He profoundly experienced this at age 71 when he was released from prison “as I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” He went on to become the first democratically elected president of South Africa and united a country that had been torn apart by racial ideology and hatred.

Sometimes leadership can be confusing. World leaders such a Donald Trump, Kim Jung Un and Vladimir Putin, wield immense power and can indeed be considered leaders. But there’s a difference between authority figures and being a leader according to Pratt. “Positional power links back to authority, which is not necessarily leadership. Authority requires that you direct, protect and maintain order; leadership is something different.” She reminds us that Mandela only achieved positional power as president in 1994, yet wielded immense leadership power many years prior – while still in jail. The lesson here is that you don’t need to wait for a system to legally endorse you as a leader before you can wield power and influence. “And effective leaders do not abuse this power, but rather use it for a higher purpose and greater good,” adds Pratt.

So, how precisely do you capture the essence of Mandela’s leadership and turn it into a disruptive Global Leadership Excellence course inspired by Mandela, Harvard Professors and growing up in a turbulent South Africa? Pratt has developed what she calls the seven quotients of intelligence, based on capabilities that shaped Mandela’s leadership. It’s based on a leadership philosophy that we need to master self to lead others, organizations, and effect meaningful change in the world. Each quotient of intelligence identifies what we need to develop in awareness and capability in each and all aspects of our human selves – our minds and cognitive ability and skill set (intellectual intelligence), as well as our ability to take intellectual complexity and make it uncomplicated and relevant for all stakeholders (practical intelligence), our hearts (emotional intelligence), our bodies (physical intelligence), our soul (spiritual intelligence), our social capability and impact in groups and communities (social intelligence) , our cross-cultural skills to move graciously across neighborhoods, communities, countries and nations (cultural intelligence). These seven quotients give us a roadmap of what we need to awaken, to develop and to evoke the best version of ourselves to lead accomplished lives.

“We should learn to master ourselves before being given the privilege of leading others.” – Anne Pratt

When we master all aspects of our humanity, we are whole. It’s a formula developed from experiences in South Africa, meetings with leaders globally, discussions with Harvard professors who teach leadership, and insights gained from source documents at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

It’s not all high academics either. Pratt also relishes stories by ordinary people inspired by Mandela who’ve applied his lessons to their life and work. Overlapping scholarly insight with business school practice, executive search leadership experience and emotional inspiration may seem odd, but Pratt is convinced these pieces will all fit together and deliver something compelling. Maybe as unusual as a man jailed as a freedom fighter and emerging as a president revered the world over. Amazingly, Mandela remained on the US government terrorist watch list until 2008 (he became South African president in 1994). A Sunday Times story in 2016, reveals how the CIA played a role in Mandela’s arrest in 1962, with the operative calling Mandela, “The world’s most dangerous communist outside of the Soviet Union.”

Often referred to as “the trial that changed South Africa,” in October 1963, Mandela, along with 10 leading opponents of apartheid went on trial in the High Court in Pretoria for their lives, on charges of sabotage. In what was arguably the most profound moment in the trial, Nelson Mandela made a speech in the dock in which he condemned the very court in which he was appearing as ‘illegitimate.’ He then proceeded to argue that the South African legal system, and the laws that were in place, were equally draconian and that defiance of these laws was justified. To demonstrate that the struggle was not only about constitutional freedom, but also economic liberation, one of Mandela’s co-accused Mac Maharaj, completed a MBA during his 12 years of imprisonment. he went on to  become a board member of FirstRand Holding Group, FirstRand Bank and many other leading business institutions in South Africa after his release.

Pratt is reminded of a quote by another South African activist, Steve Biko, who said: “The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look but the great gift still has to come from Africa — giving the world a more human face.” Despite the Afro-sceptics and legitimate concerns oer the track record of certain parts of Africa, Mandela managed to achieve this. It wasn’t single-handedly, however; individuals alone do not make a difference. Many Harvard professors would argue that the strength of the institution around a leader is equally essential. A healthy organization with solid values and principles goes a long way in determining how successful a leader will be. In Mandela’s case, he was part of a movement which was built on sound values and principles and assumed the leadership of an organization that had been established by firm, principled founders. While still in prison, Mandela launched a Supreme Court appeal against his prison guards in 1980 for non-delivery of letters to his wife, Winnie. It was a small but principled decision that showed that, despite being a prisoner, human dignity and fairness should be a non-negotiable right. The huge number of scams and fraud perpetuated by opportunists in Mandela’s name, even beyond his death, is a warning on how good reputations (and brands) need protection well into the future. The lesson for business is to examine the history of a company before leading it and be aware of the legacy, and reputation,  you will leave for future CEOs while doing so.

Mandela was born in 1918 and was an iconic world leader from the 1960s to his death in 2013. It’s worth considering his views on our current global situation If he were alive today.

“To be a phenomenal leader, you need balance, courage, anchors and well-rounded intelligence,” reckons Pratt. “Not just in one area, but in a broad, holistic way. We should learn to master ourselves before being given the privilege of leading others.”

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. We’ve all met intellectually smart people with high IQs, but many who are emotionally disconnected. On the flipside, you may know someone who is emotionally connected but doesn’t apply their mind very well. Some leaders are physically fit and strong but don’t compete in a way that is emotionally mature. We are all stronger in specific areas than others. Pratt has coined the phrase “social intelligence” for those able to operate well in groups, “cultural intelligence” for the ability to operate successfully across cultural borders and boundaries, and “spiritual intelligence” which is a knowingness that we are all one as humanity. Mandela had these capabilities and more, which is why he appealed to such a wide following.

“Mandela was an incredibly disciplined person. Introducing this one fact into your life is the first step to becoming an effective leader. We need self-discipline to maintain a strong backbone.  It’s not easy. Consider how difficult it is to keep a new year’s resolution beyond a few weeks. Once you’ve mastered self-discipline, it’s time to practice physical, intellectual, practical, social, cultural and emotional intelligence, as you would do by going to a gym to exercise.

A good question to ask yourself is: “Do I control my emotions, or do they control me?” While in prison, Mandela had the intellectual capacity to realize that his anger was sabotaging his higher purpose and he disciplined himself to manage it. Some may think this approach can produce a sterile, robotic leader, but importantly, Mandela never lost his heart. Forgiveness and an ability to feel the pain of conflicting parties created an empathy that allowed universal humanity to shine through – an African concept known as “Ubuntu” or oneness. His demonstration of empathy was so profound, that people, companies and governments felt the need to emulate and honor it. Oprah Winfrey established the Leadership Academy for Girls in 2007 and The Canadian government donated R25 million to the Nelson Mandela Children’s hospital four years after his death. Leading example is always the best approach.

The challenges of the 21st Century will not be met by focusing on the borders of a country or obsessing over sovereign states when we’re facing human threats such as climate change, nuclear war and cyber threats. These challenges threaten humanity across borders and don’t recognize boundaries.

What would Mandela tell America today? “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” says Pratt, quoting Mandela. “He’d also probably tell Americans they are a great power in the world with lots of authority – which comes with great responsibility. Find your common purpose, build strong relationships with allies, negotiate across differences and forgive the heartache that comes from inequality, police brutality and differing political viewpoints, while finding a way to correct past imbalances. Lead with vision and purpose, with courage, and be a beacon of hope for the world.” Importantly, don’t leave these ideas as heroic fantasies – decide what this will look like in your society, organization or company and act on it with courage and determination.

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