A Distinction Between the Best Leader Versus the Great Leader
Many of us are familiar with Lao Tzu’s quote: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” And yes, in ordinary situations, the best leader may well be the one that is barely visible on the stage. The best leader might be one that is in the background, supporting others, orchestrating initiatives, encouraging his/her troops and navigating his/her ship to destination.
But how would this quote fit a leader such as Mr. Nelson Mandela?
I count myself lucky to have had the chance to meet him three times. And each time I was even more grateful than the previous, because each time I understood more and more the magnitude of his work. I have been lucky not only because I had the chance to meet him, but also I had the chance to meet several of the men and women who worked closely with him. Through the conversations with these individuals, I had the chance to appreciate beyond what words could describe the South African journey of transformation and change.
Nowadays, there are numerous books, studies, models, etc. that offer us various takes on what leadership is, how it is exercised, how it can be learned or improved. Yet, in the early nineteen hundreds, in a country that was split by a ruthless regime of Apartheid, separating, categorizing and grading people by the color of their skin – a few individuals came together to challenge that reality through an unprecedented kind of leadership – a leadership that was neither based on a model, nor fully worked out. It was about the kind of leadership that emerged as a response to the tension between an incredible vision for change and an ever-present situation of crisis.
At the time members of the African National Congress engaged in the struggle for freedom, most of Africa was under colonial rule. Most of Asia was also under colonial rule. There was “white” supremacy on a global level. People of color had little or no say about much of life. Even the United States practiced institutionalized segregation where whites and blacks had to live in parallel worlds.
Of course, needless to say that none of the technology – email, cell phones, internet, etc. – we enjoy today to communicate existed in the early nineteen hundreds. It is at this time, that these few South African men and women came together to co-create, co-envision and co-dream what South Africa deserves to be. They came up with a bold definition of what South Africa is to them: South Africa is not a nation to be divided and subjected to Apartheid. South Africa is neither only for white, nor only for black. South Africa is a nation where all people of all races, ethnicities and religion can live together, freely, with equal opportunities, in peace, under one flag.
Now that this dream has been achieved, it may seem normal that South Africa is the nation that we know today as the Rainbow Nation. Where it is normal to be White, Indian or Black or any other ethnicity and still identify with the one flag and one nationality. The question is: what kind of leadership did it take to not only make this dream, this vision come true; but to even be able to articulate, think of, dream of such an seemingly impossible vision?
Lao Tzu said that the best leader is the one that is hardly visible; the kind of leader that hardly exist in the foreground – the kind of leader that stays in the background. If we take Lao Tzu’s statement a bit further and in consideration with the leadership of men like Mr. Nelson Mandela, the best leader would be the one, that not only stays in the background empowering others, but more so one that able to share the passion of his/her vision with others, so much so that the vision is passed on; it transcends the one who envisioned and enters into or becomes part and parcel of all those who also come to believe in the very same passion. Maybe, it might be easier to refer to this kind of sharing of a vision as a viral way of sharing vision. Viral meaning that once others are exposed to the vision, each person is able to see how the vision is relevant to their own core existence and life purpose; each person becomes anointed or “infected” with the nature of the vision and the urgency for action it reflects.
In July 2009, I had the chance to spend almost a whole day with Mr. Ahmed Kathrada. Mr. Kathrada, Kathy as they called him, spent 18 years together with Mr. Mandela in the prison on Robben Island. He was 34 years old when he entered the prison in 1964. Along with Mr. Mandela (Madiba) and 6 others, he was part of the eight activists sentenced to life in prison on 12 July 1964 accused of sabotage against the State of South Africa. Of the eight sentenced, seven of them went to Robben Island, and one of them, Denis Goldberg, was held in Pretoria as he was white. In 1982, they were moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, Madiba at the end of March, Mr. Kathrada in October. They were together there until Nov 1985 when Madiba was moved to a cell alone. From August 12, Mr. Mandela was ill with TB and was moved to two different hospitals, and then back to Victor Verster Prison from 7 Dec 1988 on wards from where Mr. Mandela was released about 14 months later on February 11, 1990. Although Mr. Kathrada was among the youngest activists of the African National Congress, he played a key role throughout the years in the unfolding of events and overcoming challenges.
Mr. Kathrada was released at the age of 60. When I met him, he was 81 years old, still as elegant, handsome and graceful as ever. I asked Mr. Kathrada: “How does one learn leadership?” His answer was in many ways simple, yet difficult to translate in actual step-by-step learning. He said: “It is the response to crisis that gives the individual the strength, the courage, and at times the madness to go out and stand up for a cause. It is the crisis that brings the leader in each person.” For Mr. Kathrada, leadership was not something to be learned, but something that he found himself being a part of and expressed through his participation in the struggle as an activist. For the cause, he was willing to pay with his life because the crisis at hand, his contribution to resolving it and the movement he was part of, was simply, to him, greater than his own life.
When I asked Mr. Kathrada, how others could learn from the South African story and leadership genius, he said: “I don’t know what can or cannot work for others; I know our story and why we did what we did.” Maybe there is no one-way of leadership that can be replicated from one situation to another. Instead, what is possible is for us to be inspired by the expression of leadership we see around the world and explore how that very inspiration can carry us in addressing the issues or crisis we face in our own circumstance. It is our capacity to remain authentic to who we each are as individuals and at the same time being able to link this individual being that we are to the collective being that we are together, with all others with whom we strive to achieve a common vision. That my being myself does not impede on my peers to also be themselves authentically and that together we are able to head out in formation towards our common goal, making space for one another as our particular leadership competence is called for by the cadence of the situations that arise along the way. It’s about a being able to flow together organically and being collectively lead by the ultimate destination we aim for.
On December 8, 2013, at the funeral service for Mr. Mandela, Mr. Kathrada ended his Eulogy for Mr. Mandela as follows: “Farewell my dear brother, my mentor, my leader…I’ve lost a brother. My life is in a void and I don’t know who to turn to.” The kind of leadership that Mr. Mandela and those who fought with him to make South Africa what it is today, is not one of structure, hierarchy, or following one leadership model or another. It is the kind of leadership where those involved recognized the value of each and every person in the movement. Where being recognized as a leader did not mean that one did not follow. It was flawless dance where each took on the mantel of leadership as needed as the situation called without such flow getting in the way of the greater purpose towards which each strived both individually and collectively. When someone of the stature of Mr. Kathrada can refer to another as “dear brother, my mentor, my leader” it makes me wonder how our world would be different both in our private and professional lives, if we could refer to one another with such humility and appreciation. What would such attitude change in the ways we could possibly empower each other and achieve beyond expectation? How could we each express our leadership, and show up as individuals to make space for a collective being that both demands excellence, results and at the same time humility and appreciation?
I suppose that while the best leader is the one that is hardly visible and the one that once the work is done, others say we did it ourselves; the greatest leader is the one that allows each of us to recognize our own authentic capacity for excellence in leadership, and empowers us with the courage to express that leadership for the sake of a common welfare. Mr. Mandela gave his life, sacrificed his family and his own personal well being to follow his conviction about freedom, equality, justice and peace for all. In leading the way to change the history of South Africa, and that of the World along the way, the lesson I draw from his life work is that leadership is about being true to our dreams. It’s about having clarity about what matters to us and engaging the path to achieve our vision regardless of whether we have the resources or not, regardless of whether it’s a popular endeavor or not, regardless of whether others will follow or not. It’s about daring to engage our individual journeys owning our humanness and humanity.
About the Author
Yene Assegid is from Ethiopia, raised in Belgium as a teenager, and has been a citizen of the world through her work with the United Nations and her education pursuits, including the two-year program by Pacific Integral. She is an Associated Editor and Bureau Chief for Sub-Saharan Africa (with Oliver Ngodo). Currently, she is living with her German diplomat husband and their children in Beijing, China.