Nelson Mandela and Mature Leadership

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

We also witness important individual instances of leadership able to hold complexity with the needed maturity of perspective. Political leadership thus far has most often stopped short, but there have been striking exceptions. I think of Nelson Mandela’s remarkable accomplishments.

A year before the fall of Apartheid I was invited to visit South Africa in a consulting role by a group of expatriates living in the U.S. They wanted answers to two questions: Was change really happening? (Hopes had been brutally dashed so many times in the past.) And if it was, did any way exist to have change happen without major violence and bloodshed? I was in South Africa for over a month, talking with opposition leadership, academics, government officials, and people in the streets. My answer was split. I came away convinced that real change was indeed possible—and happening. But in spite of all the brilliant and committed people I spoke with and my own background in understanding systems, I could not see a way for change to happen peacefully.


I was right on the first count, but proven quite wrong on the second.

The variable I had not factored in was the person of Nelson Mandela. I am not one to give leadership more than it is due. Change is as often a product of circumstances as the people we associate with it. But I see Nelson Mandela’s efforts in a special light. We need only contrast South Africa’s recent history with events in neighboring Zimbabwe to appreciate the sophistication of leadership Mandela brought to bear—and how different things could have been without him. Certainly polarization—and righteous revenge—would have been the more expected reaction given South Africa’s past and Mandela’s years of imprisonment. Instead we saw something that went beyond even just personal wisdom. His was a wisdom that embraced South Africa as a whole, and beyond. His vision—and stature in holding it—produced changes that others, including myself, could not readily imagine.

(I do not mean to make Mandela the sole factor in what transpired. Many critical, behind-the-scenes meetings took place between representatives of the Apartheid government and the African National Congress in the years before Mandela’s release. (The Masterpiece Theater production Endgame wonderfully depicts these meetings.))