Real Leaders

A Lesson of Mandela That No One is Talking About

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Do you wonder who Nelson Mandela would have been to the world if he had not been imprisoned for 27 years? Do you believe he would have been one of the great leaders of our world had he avoided that hardship? Given the revolutionary path he was on, and the likelihood of escalating violence intended to overthrow an oppressive regime that was not yet willing to cede control, it is likely that few would remember who this man was.

It is almost as if he was sent away to mature and be groomed until just the right time when both he and the world would be ready. He is respected for who he became as a result of his hardship and incarceration. He described his 27 years in prison as a unique opportunity to work on himself, to become a better man. Everyone is likely to agree that being arrested and sent to prison for life feels like a bad thing.

Is it possible that it was the best thing that could have happened to Nelson Mandela, South Africa, and even the world? I have a friend that often says “It’s aaall goood” in his charming southern drawl, and for a long time he appeared to use it at the most inappropriate times. “How are you doing?” I’d ask, and he’d reply “Looks like I may need to go in for a root canal. It’s aaall goood.” How getting a root canal is “all good” was hard to understand.

But as the years have passed, have you noticed how the “bad” things that happened to you turned out to be what my mother used to call “a blessing in disguise”? When I was diagnosed with a painful, degenerative, incurable disease of the spine I was devastated. This was “bad”. Very bad. It was not until years later that I was able to see that this was one of the best things that had ever happened to me.

It forced me to completely rethink my lifestyle and my life. I quit my high stress job, launched a more fulfilling career, began taking care of myself, and found purpose and love in my life. Without that disease, I would not have changed and would still be unhappy, stressed, and unfulfilled. Finally it was clear that indeed, it is all good! It’s not always clear at the time how it’s good, and it often doesn’t feel good, but it always is.

This is not a recommendation that you go out and get arrested to spend time in prison or do anything to cause you to contract a disease. But if you do, or when anything “bad” happens to you, the lesson from Mandela is to look for the opportunity for good in it. The opportunity is always there if you seize it. However seizing the opportunity is optional.

Nelson Mandela could have spent 27 years in prison building justifiable hatred for his captors and plotting revenge instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to become a better man and a real leader. Some may look at these life challenges as random events, others may see the hand of God, Karma, or any number of things, but the fact remains that things that feel bad happen to all of us.

We can make them feel worse by resisting what is, or we can make it feel better by embracing it and looking for the opportunity created by this challenge. That is a lesson that every woman, child and man on the planet can learn from this great leader. Nelson Mandela would love to have his 27 years back, but given the choice of giving back the man that he had become as a result of that hardship, I think he’d say “No thanks. It’s aaall goood.”


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