Nelson MandelaIf one aspires to the role of leadership one would do well to study the lessons of both Nelson Mandela and President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt. Both participated as outsiders seeking a revolution against dictatorial and oppressive rule. Both witnessed the success of the revolutions they advocated and both came to power to face the challenges of internal division and the need to build a new and democratic culture. There the similarities end and in the difference there are significant lessons for leaders of all organizations.

The Spirit of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela accomplished what is nearly a miracle. It is not his long suffering in prison for 27 years or his constancy of purpose in pursuing a revolution through non-violence. Ghandi, Martin Luther King and others also endured suffering in their pursuit of revolutionary change. But, Nelson Mandela came to power in a country that was clearly divided and in which there was enormous potential for retribution and retaliation against those who had used violence and oppression themselves.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” – Nelson Mandela

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” – Nelson Mandela

Mandela became a figure of almost religious significance in that he recognized the spiritual challenge of uniting his country. He preached to his followers to turn the other cheek, to extend the hand of friendship, even love, to those who had committed violence against them. It is an incredible achievement that he was able to convince his followers to pursue the goal of unity over justice. The trials held after the end of apartheid were not to seek justice as it is traditionally understood. Rather they were correctly calledTruth and Reconciliation Trialsfor the purpose of exposing the truth of the atrocities committed under apartheid and seeking reconciliation between the offended and the offender. By instilling the spirit of unity in the country the violence that is so often the result of revolutions was avoided and the country moved forward.

While Mandela was elected president, it was always the impression that he had little or no ambition for personal power. His ambition was for the unity and progress of his country.

George Washington and the Sacrifice of Ego

As a student of American history I can’t help but notice some similarities with the Founding Father of our own country, George Washington, who also had little ambition for personal power and preferred, after the Revolutionary War, to return to his farm and pursue a peaceful life out of the spotlight. But, he was drafted to become the first president and he similarly faced great divisions even within his own cabinet. Without leadership capable of creating unity out of diversity, the country could easily have disintegrated.

Washington-Farewell-to-Officers-FrauncesWashington was truly the leader who could have been king. At the end of the war, as the British fleet was sailing out of New York Harbor, Washington met with his officers in Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan. They had not been paid for years and the Continental Congress refused to raise taxes to make good on the promissory notes they had been given. Washington had the Army and the officers who were prepared to march on Philadelphia where the Congress sat and instill Washington as the leader in whatever form he wished. In their eyes he was the only legitimate source of authority in the thirteen states. But, Washington addressed his officers in Fraunces Tavern and with a tear in his eye, acknowledged the injustice faced by his officers and yet begged them to make one more sacrifice for the newly born country and return home. He said that he had fought for a country in which law was preeminent over personalities and not the reverse. This moment of complete lack of ego, complete willingness to sacrifice for the common good, was Washington’s greatest gift to his country. From that moment forward it would be a country in which principles and process, law, would be more important than personality.

Both Mandela and Washington had a sense for their own unimportance and the importance of something much greater than their own personality or interests. They both achieved greatness by their lack of ego and their sacrifice for their vision of a united people.

But, they had something else. It is what I have long referred to as affection and affiliation with their followers. When giving my Barbarians to Bureaucrats talk I have long used the example of Alexander the Great who always suffered with his soldiers when they suffered. His expression of affection, love for his soldiers, was returned in loyalty that is achieved in no other way.

In the July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review there is an article that asks the question “is it better for leaders to be lovable (warmth, trust, affiliation) or strong (competence and credentials)?” (Connect, Then Lead by Amy J.C. Cuddy, Mathew Kohut, and John Neffinger) The authors report that “Most leaders today tend to emphasize their strength, competence and creditials in the workplace, but that is exactly the wrong approach. Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors.” The authors quote research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkmann that conclude that the chances that a manager who is strongly disliked will be considered a good leader are only about one in 2,000. They suggest that a growing body of evidence suggests that the way to influence, to lead, is to begin with warmth. “Warmth is the conduit of influence: it facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.” Prioritizing warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrates that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them.

Both Mandela and Washington demonstrated affection, warmth, toward those whom they sought to lead. In the case of Mandela he went out of his way to demonstrate warmth toward those who were both his oppressors and those who now feared him.

Mohamed Morsi and the Failure of Leadership

Mohamed-Morsi,-nouveau-president-degypteThere is a repeated scene in the Middle East countries of the Arab Spring. It was repeated by Gadhafi of Libya, Mubarak of Egypt, Assad of Syria, and most recently by Mohamed Morsi of Egypt. It is the speech given in the face of mass demonstrations demanding that they step down. In each case they have appeared before their nation to condemn and denigrate those who protest against their rule. They accuse them of being terrorists, agents of their country’s enemies, criminals, and worse. In each case they have sought to assert their strength, offering to spill their own blood for their country and offering no respect, understanding, or warmth for those who oppose them. This has the inevitable affect to enraging their opponents and strengthening the opposition. In Syria this complete failure of leadership has led to the virtually complete destruction of the country.

In each case these leaders came to power representing some tribal group (whether an actual tribe or a group with a tribal mind) and the leader consolidated his power within his tribe and at the same time alienated those of other groups or interests. This is a prescription that guaranties disunity and disintegration. It is the inverse of the path followed by both Mandela and Washington.

Mohamed Morsi has failed to understand the meaning of Mandela’s wordsFor to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”By failing to express appreciation and affection for those who are not members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but those who simply are seeking a better life with the freedoms we all seek to enjoy, he has sacrificed his legitimacy.

So, what does this have to do with leaders in the corporate world? Each can reflect on these examples and draw your own conclusions, but let me suggest the following:

  • The first responsibility of a leader is to create unity of energy and effort and that can only be achieved by demonstrating affection and affiliation, for not only your own group, but for those who are most different than yourself and who may have the most to fear from your power. Power is not diminished by this demonstration of warmth, rather it is enhanced. Warmth is the first act of competent leadership.
  • In too many cases I have seen a new CEO appointed who emerged from the marketing organization, for example, and it was viewed as a victory for the tribe of marketing who would now dominate over manufacturing or other groups. This division is the seed of internal conflict and that represents the waste of energy and effort.
  • All great leaders view themselves as servants to others. The servant leadership idea, that the leader is not there for his own aggrandizement, but rather for service to those he or she seeks to lead, requires the sacrifice of ego, but ironically results in the highest form of respect.
  • All organizations, like countries, reach maturity when they place principles and process above personalities. Any country or company that is dependent on any personality is inherently weak. The sustainability of an organization or country requires that its strength rest on the quality of its processes and principles, not on its personalities.