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Remembering Mandela: His Three Timeless Workplace Lessons

Nelson Mandela

Editor’s note: Weekly Wrap is stepping back and celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela today. We’ll be back with our regular format next Friday.

By Howard Mavity

After 30 years of seeing the worst of the workplace, I have few heroes left. This week, I lost my JFK or MLK.

I’ll remember where I was sitting when I learned that the lion who was Nelson Mandela, had roared his last. I choose to believe that’s how he went out. –as a lion of a man.

My 19 year-old son and I were in Soweto last June when everyone expected Nelson Mandela to die. It’s hard to describe our feelings as we sat in his church near his home. We pondered all that we had learned in South Africa in the preceding weeks.

A perfect memory of a great but imperfect man

Nelson Mandela was far from perfect; nor is South Africa, which makes both his memory and his country more precious.

You intellectually realize the atrocities of the former apartheid regime but cannot truly appreciate what the people endured until you have visited the former work hostels where black workers stayed, often for years, separated from their families. Or learned about the extraordinary bureaucracy that developed in the late 1940’s to consciously degrade and keep blacks as a subject unskilled labor force.

Even education was skewed as a type of social programming. Thank God for the many brave mission and church schools.

Leading a nation to forgive and move forward

Finally, we’re not talking about thousands murdered; we’re talking about hundreds of thousands. It would be a bit difficult to criticize apartheid’s former victims for their anger. And yet, that’s precisely what Mandela did.

He was a tough man, a former boxer, and a man who could make a Minister of Justice feel like an errant schoolboy when he met him in prison. A man’s man, and a man who had himself suffered much.

Don’t idealize Mandela’s actions like some mythic saga. He was, as I said, a flawed human being who also made mistakes.

So consider what it took for this man to lead his entire nation to forgive and to seek to move forward. Only Mandela and the faithful Bishop Desmond Tutu would have held televised reconciliation hearings where former apartheid leaders and their lowest minions would be pardoned if they testified to their wrongdoing.

Why? To bring closure. Imagine being a parent or spouse, who until these hearings, had never been told, “yes, we killed your son 20 years ago. He’s not coming back. Begin to heal.” Closure.

3 lessons for the workplace

There is an educational theory that we absorb great ideas through reading the great books. Although we look for prescriptions and formulas for leadership, business or safety success, there is no substitute for reading about great leaders and the times in which they operated.

Take them off their pedestals and you’ll learn much from the errors of George Washington, Lincoln and Grant. And yet, the last time I checked, they changed the world. What can you learn from George Marshall, Roosevelt’s general who picked the generals who won World War II?

  1. Learn from Mandela’s life. He was a shrewd man as well as genuinely noble. Ivory Tower types didn’t defeat Apartheid or lay the foundation for a new society. As one Black survivor of Apartheid excitedly told me, “some day we’ll even have a white president!” These leaders screwed up, took risks, and determined to do the right thing. Learn from them.
  2. Manage that anger. Don’t make excuses. Were you locked away for 20 years literally breaking rock in a silica ridden atmosphere? If not, control that temper and tongue; especially in the workplace.
  3. Regardless of your political persuasion, don’t focus on “diversity efforts” or politically correct behavior. You’re setting far too low a bar. Use our continuing challenge to build a merit-based color/race/sex blind workplace as a motivator to practically work out how to be a responsible supervisor and a compassionate co-worker.

Set your bar high

I pride myself on my toughness and pragmatism. Like Mandela, I used to box and fight. But as mid 50’s senior partner and leader in a national firm, I understand that a lot is expected of me.

I need to consider how to genuinely develop the next group of leaders, and guys like me set the tone for genuinely appreciating one’s workers, and showing it. Every day we read good articles on effective management, leadership, engaging employees and attracting talent.

We don’t read enough articles about developing “character,” and about being the boss or co-worker we’d like others to be to us. So set your bar high.

Judge me not by my successes; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” — From The Long Walk To Freedom, by Nelson Mandela

This was originally published on Fisher & Phillips’ Workplace Safety and Health Law Blog.

Howard Mavity is a senior partner in the Atlanta office of the law firm Fisher & Phillips. He co-chairs the firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group, and has provided counsel for over 200 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies. In addition, he has managed almost 400 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. Contact him at hmavity@laborlawyers.com .
  • Esi Mathis

    Thanks for this article, reminding us to learn from and build upon the life lessons of flawed leaders. We all are.

  • Tim Kuppler

    Great advice. I read Long Walk to Freedom and you are correct in your point about their being no substitute for reading about great leaders and the time in which they operated. There’s no excuse for leaders to buckle under the pressure and let anger destroy what they hope to build. His persistent focus on constructive and positive actions for decades was amazing. Some of my other favorite Mandela quotes are: “It always seems impossible until it’s done” and “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

    • Norman Jentner

      Tim,
      I so appreciate your comments, as well. Thank you for the additional quotes.
      My best.

  • Norman Jentner

    Thank you, Howard, for your thoughtful remembrance of Nelson Mandela, also one of my most inspiring heroes.

    You are absolutely right when you point out what I might call Mendala’s “death-defying faith” leading to continuing actions, communications, learning, and getting up again… in enlightened self-respect… where anger informs, and may even guide, but does not direct.

    I so appreciate your emphasis of the importance that all leaders similarly follow Mendala’s and others’ examples, in their own time and context.

    And that it starts with oneself.

    My very best.