Inspiration from Mandela

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.” — William Ernst Henley

These words are the last stanza from the poem “Invictus” written by William Ernst Henley in the 1800s. It was this poem that inspired and sustained Nelson Mandela through 27 years of imprisonment.

This year, the film industry offered a stunning contribution depicting the life of Nelson Mandela in the early days of his presidency in South Africa. While the writers of the screenplay may have taken liberty with the exact words of the messages Mandela offered, the film nevertheless captures the essence of his spirit and provides profound lessons in leadership.

The first day as president, Mandela noticed the number of staff (all white) from the previous administration packing their belongings. He asked that they gather together.

They believed that Mandela was enjoying the notion of firing them collectively. Instead, this was his message: “I couldn’t help noticing the empty offices as I came to work today … and all the packing boxes. Now, of course, if you want to leave, that is your right. And if you feel in your heart that you cannot work with your new government, then it is better that you do leave right away. But if you are packing up because you fear that your language, or the color of your skin, or who you served previously, disqualifies you from working here now, I am here to tell you, have no such fear. What’s past is past. We look to the future now … We need your help. If you would like to stay, you will be doing your country a great service. I ask only that you do your jobs to the best of your abilities and with good hearts. I promise to do the same. If we can manage that, our country will be a shining light in the world …”
Like Nelson Mandela, we have witnessed great clarity on the part of many executives that we support. Their clarity results in increased confidence from the people within their organizations. These leaders provide direction. They communicate the mission and vision of the organization as guiding lights. They do not waver.

When the lead for President Mandela’s bodyguards learned that the president had appointed white bodyguards from the previous administration, he was furious. He demanded to know why these men from the previous regime, the same regime that had tortured, imprisoned, raped and murdered so many of the African black people would have the privilege of serving as bodyguards for this president. Mandela’s response:
“When people see me, they see my bodyguards too. You represent me, directly. The rainbow nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here … Forgiveness starts here. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is a powerful weapon.”
In a recent client off-site retreat, we witnessed leaders giving voice to forgiving one another. We experienced the CEO who lost his temper, stand in front of his leadership team and say, “I am sorry.” We witnessed the words of Mandela in those moments. “Forgiveness liberates the soul.” We witnessed each leader in the room experience a feeling of liberation, visible in their faces and in their non-verbal body language.
Courage and compassion

Mandela knew that the South African Springboks Rugby Team was as hated by the black population as they were beloved by the Afrikaaner whites. When the National Sports Council (all black) voted to change the name, the uniform and the emblem of the team, Mandela intervened at great risk to his popularity with the black community. In the film, Morgan Freeman as Mandela says to the Sports Council: “I am aware of your earlier vote. I am aware that it was unanimous. Nonetheless, I propose that we restore the Springboks. Restore their name, their emblem and their colors immediately … We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint and generosity.”

For all leaders, it is much easier to succumb to popular opinion … so much harder to stand in your own truth with courage and conviction. Nelson Mandela demonstrated that courage and compassion can make a difference. His insight was to see the possibility of the power of reconciliation that could be achieved if the rugby team were to pull off the equivalent of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team’s victory. He demonstrated unimaginable courage when he took the risk to challenge a decision that had already been made by the National Sports Council.
Relationship: I see you

For me, one of the more endearing messages in the film came when Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, accepted an invitation to have tea with the president.

“What’s he like?” he asked one of the white bodyguards who was taking him to the president’s office.
Henrick, the white bodyguard, responded, “When I worked for the previous president, it was my job to be invisible. This president (Mandela) found out I like English toffee and brought me some back from his visit to the queen.”
“To him, nobody is invisible.”

If there is no other message that leaders take from this article, it is my hope that you appreciate and recognize in new ways how much your employees long to be “seen” by you. This is a universal human desire: to be seen … to be noticed … to be appreciated.

Nelson Mandela had the personal capacity to see you. He demonstrated the compassion to understand; the courage to take bold steps; and the ability to forgive even the unforgiveable. He has taught us significant lessons in leadership by the way he chose to live his life.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (, a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

No posts to display