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Leadership lessons from Mandela and Tutu

November 14, 2012

"If we didn't have apartheid, we wouldn't have had Nelson Mandela"

-Tour bus guide in Johannesburg

If you know about apartheid and all the horrors that Black South Africans suffered for most of the last century, you might be astonished by that statement. I know I was.

I heard it on a recent trip to South Africa. I was there in part to present (with my songstress wife) on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu, which followed the end of apartheid. This was for an international Creativity and Madness Conference. I would come to conclude that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission was a most creative way to treat the madness of apartheid. Maybe even that the human price of the trade-off might come to be worth it. How can that possibly be?

The only adequate answer can be that South Africa will become the kind of light unto nations that it could never have become otherwise. Right now, in our country, we are rightly focused on the historical leadership lessons of Abraham Lincoln, stimulated by Steven Spielberg's new movie. However, the leadership lessons of Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu may also be timely for our political leaders and ourselves. If there was ever a vote for the top global leaders of the last century, they would get my vote in a tie.

The simplified history is this: Nelson Mandela was an early leader in the African National Congress that began 100 years ago to redress the apartheid laws of first, the British led government, then that of the Afrikaners, which separated, subdued, and even brutally slaughtered the Black population. At first, Mandela advocated non-violence, inspired by Gandhi's time in South Africa trying to help the Indians who had settled there. Then, when he concluded that this strategy was not being successful, he advocated violence, at great personal risk. Soon, he was captured, and in 1964 sentenced to life imprisonment. Over time, while in prison, he turned back to a policy of non-violence. Upon his release in 1991 and election to the Presidency in 1994, South Africa avoided a civil war and political violence gradually diminished.

To help to restore relationships across all cultures for a common purpose, the traditional South African principle of ubuntu, he turned to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the leader while Mandela and others were imprisoned. Tutu recommended a Truth & Reconciliation Commission, which would be a temporary process of hearings alongside the usual legal and justice procedures. It was to be somewhere between complete amnesty for the prior perpetrators and the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazis. From 1996-1998, Tutu established three committees: human rights, amnesty, and reparations.

Although there have been many Truth & Reconciliation processes before and after this one, South Africa's was unique in having these hearings be public and on television. Victims made their hidden suffering known; some perpetrators admitted their crimes under orders, apologized, and received amnesty; and reparations, though limited, were awarded. All told, the Commission seemed to become a kind of moral or political therapy for the nation. Goodness knows, just like the remnants of the slavery abolished by President Lincoln can still be seen in the overrepresentation of young African-American males being imprisoned in the USA, most Black South Africans are still suffering from severe economic hardship. However, forgiveness came to trump revenge.

In the ensuing years, both Mandela and Tutu have continued to lead as they age. Mandela asked Tutu to establish a group of elderly leaders called The Elders, "independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights." Tutu, though retired from being an Archbishop, has continued to address challenging and controversial issues, ranging from supporting the global expansion of managed healthcare to ways to try to resolve the Middle East conflicts.

Though seemingly too distant in time and place, the lessons of their leadership for us may be many. At a time when we are beginning a new Presidential term, and when healthcare (and mental healthcare) reform will become fully implemented, here is what I learned (or re-learned) from my study, as well as from the presentations of others on Tutu and Mandela at the conference.

-keep guided by principles, but be practical;

-change strategy when failing;

-take time to assess your own leadership strengths and weaknesses;

-build bridges to those with other and opposite points of view;

-forgive others if they apologize for system-driven mistakes;

-apply the principles of the Truth & Reconciliation to unresolved historical traumas, ranging from patients with PTSD to displaced people like American Indians;

-never give up on a worthy struggle to right wrongs;

-read and study Nelson Mandela's autobiographical book Long Walk to Freedom; Allister Sparks and Mpho Tutu's new book Tutu Authorized; Antjie Krog's poetic book Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa; and the most moving DVD of Facing the Truth With Bill Moyers.

I feel immense gratitude for being able to study the history of apartheid in South Africa, and to see the start of its resolution. Perhaps, if more known, the leadership lessons of Mandela and Tutu will help the Obama-2 administration fulfill the agenda that Ron Manderscheid discusses in his November 9, 2012 blog. Now, if only someday Steven Spielberg will make a movie about apartheid and its dismantling under Mandela and Tutu ...

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