This week’s Fundamental Behavior, Lead by example, is very personal to me. In 1994, as a young adult, I had the privilege to personally experience the end of apartheid in South Africa. When I think back to 1994 and the years following the democratic election of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, or more frequently referred to as Madiba (his Xhosa clan name), the memories that flood my mind are of a man who was soft spoken but direct and kind but firm, but most memorable was that of a man who chose to forgive rather than hate. Through his leadership, he brought together an angry, divided and scared nation that would over time embrace reconciliation over war and lay the foundation to allow for a new future for all South Africans.
Richard Stengel’s book, Nelson Mandela: Portrait of an Extraordinary Man, teaches us three lessons that I believe we can take and apply to our leadership style.
# 1 – “If he were a soldier, he would be the one jumping out of the foxhole and leading the charge across the field of battle:”
Madiba was a “do as I do” and not a “do as I say” leader. One of the biggest impacts a leader can have on a team is to work alongside them as much as possible. Leaders need to seek out the opportunities to connect and serve their teams. Stengel says that Madiba was not only genuinely “leading from the front,” he was also of the “view that leaders must not only lead, they must be seen to be leading – that is part of the job description.” Moreover, because Madiba took the lead even in personal relationships, he challenges all of us to lead from the front not only when you have a leader title but to also lead in our one-on-one relationships.
# 2 – “But leading from the front also meant doing things that did not necessarily attract attention:”
Former Robben Island prisoner and anti-apartheid activist Eddie Daniels relates the powerful story of how Madiba used to help him with his chamber pot when Eddie was ill and could not clean his own “balie” as they called the pots. It is an incredibly inspiring story from which we learn about the humility of Madiba. As the leader of the biggest anti-apartheid movement on Robben Island, Madiba very well could have chosen to instruct someone else to attend to Eddie’s balie, but he chose instead to clean it himself together with his own balie. This was the quality of leader we had in Madiba. To be a leader means to be in service to others, not a position for being served. Serving keeps a leader humble; it’s an antidote for pride and arrogance.
# 3 – When you lead from the front, you can’t let your colleagues get too far behind:
An aloof or absent leader is an ineffective leader, but a connected, consultative leader can be a very effective leader. For a leader to be effective, the team has to understand WHY decisions and choices are made. Clarity on the WHY is a foundational element of building trust. Madiba led through consultation with his colleagues, most notably, Walter Sisulu, a close and trusted friend of many years and his mentor. This demonstrates the importance in leadership of not only of consulting with team members, but also of having a confidant and advisor.
We are naturally inclined to follow leaders who inspire us into action (as opposed to commanding us into action) through the power of leading by example. Whether it is Madiba, Gandhi or Lincoln, the mark of the greatest leaders of all time is how they are able to lead by example. Leadership is a life calling, a way of living, not an 8:00 – 5:00 position we might be occupying.
Vice President of Organizational Excellence
YKK AP America