06 Dec 2013

HBS Faculty Remember Nelson Mandela


Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

With the death of Nelson Mandela, the words of the Roman poet Horace (65 – 27 BC) seem particularly appropriate in celebrating his life and achievements in freeing South Africa from the oppression of apartheid and leading his country into a new era of social and economic progress:

[He has] created a monument more lasting than bronze
And loftier than the pyramids’ royal pile,
One that no wasting rain, nor furious north wind
Can destroy, nor the immeasurable succession of years and flight of time.

(Book III. Ode 30)

Several Harvard Business School faculty members have contributed their thoughts in remembrance of a man who truly made a difference in the world for all time.

Dean Nitin Nohria, George F. Baker Professor of Administration

In the face of great odds and through acts of courage and conviction, Mandela transformed a nation and its people. And although he professed to be an ordinary man who became a leader only because of extraordinary circumstances, he exemplified the characteristics of leadership we value most highly: integrity, morality, compassion, and humility.

A truly remarkable voice of our time -- one who encouraged us all to be our better selves -- is silent. We mourn his passing as we celebrate his impact.

Professor Linda Hill, Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration and faculty chair of the HBS Leadership Initiative.

As part of a January 2008 Harvard Business Review article titled “Where Will We Find Tomorrow’s Leaders,” HBS professor Linda Hill discusses Nelson Mandela’s leadership style:

We know that the increasing diversity within business organizations and the growing interdependence of players—from business partners to NGOs—within a business ecosystem mean that leaders need to adopt a more inclusive, collaborative style. It’s also becoming clear that today’s complex environment often demands a team approach to problem solving. This requires a leader who, among other things, is comfortable sharing power and generous in doing so, is able to see extraordinary potential in ordinary people, and can make decisions with a balance of idealism and pragmatism. There’s a term I use to describe this leadership model: leading from behind…. I think it captures the type of leader I’m talking about. I got the idea from reading Nelson Mandela. Several years ago—jet-lagged in my hotel room in Cape Town, overlooking Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned—I was reading his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. At the time, I was working on an article about leadership in the twenty-first century, and I came across a passage in which Mandela recalls how a leader of his tribe talked about leadership:

“A leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

To me, this take on the shepherd image embodies the kind of leader we increasingly need: someone who understands how to create a context or culture in which other people are willing and able to lead. This image of the shepherd behind his flock is an acknowledgment that leadership is a collective activity in which different people at different times—depending on their strengths, or “nimbleness”—come forward to move the group in the direction it needs to go. The metaphor also hints at the agility of a group that doesn’t have to wait for and then respond to a command from the front. That kind of agility is more likely to be developed by a group when a leader conceives of her role as creating the opportunity for collective leadership, as opposed to merely setting direction.

I probably should emphasize that leading from behind is not about abrogating responsibility. After all, the shepherd makes sure that the flock stays together. He uses his staff to nudge and prod if the flock strays too far off the track or into danger. In fact, leading from behind is hard work and involves some crucial responsibilities and judgment calls: deciding who’s in (and, just as important, who’s not in) the group; articulating the values that will inform the group; developing the talents of members so that they can flourish in their roles; setting boundaries for the group’s activities; and managing the tensions inherent in group life—deciding, for example, when to be supportive and when to be confrontational, when to improvise and when to impose a structure.

Watch an interview with Linda Hill

Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration

Don’t just mourn Nelson Mandela. Learn to be Nelson Mandela.

He was the consummate turnaround leader. As the first democratically-elected president of post-apartheid South Africa, he took on and reversed the destructive symptoms of decline, a larger version of what goes on in any organization or community sliding downhill – suppression of information, group vs. group antagonisms, isolation and self-protection, passivity and hopelessness. He began the turnaround with messages of optimism and hope, new behaviors at the top (he even cut his own salary), and new institutions that created more communication and accountability. He created a new constitution with a participatory process that included everyone. He reached out to former enemies, visiting the widow of a particularly odious apartheid leader for tea. He ensured diversity and inclusion of all groups in his Cabinet. He brought foreign investment back to South Africa and empowered the disenfranchised black majority to take positions in those enterprises.

He knew that he was an icon and shaped a culture for others. His goal was to change behavior, not only laws. The head of what was then Daimler Chrysler South Africa, who had returned to his native South Africa after apartheid ended, motivated a hostile, unproductive black work force by engaging with them in their dream of building a Mercedes for Mandela. This was all about culture, not about financial incentives. People raised their aspirations because Mandela encouraged them.

This excerpt originally appeared on www.hbr.org on December 5, 2013. Read the full article.

Gautam Mukunda, Assistant Professor of Business Administration

It is impossible for any words to do justice to the life of Nelson Mandela. Imprisoned for “treason” for 27 years by the apartheid government of South Africa, he emerged from his Robben Island purgatory as an inspiration to a nation, a continent, and people in every corner of the globe. Almost a decade after he withdrew from public life, Mandela remained the moral center of his nation and an icon throughout the world. While in South Africa earlier this year to research a case, I was amazed how nearly everywhere I went, his name retained its totemic power.

Mandela was, perhaps more than any other person of his era, the incarnation of the idea of the truly indispensable leader. There is no need to recapitulate here his life or achievements. Both were of such magnitude that their outlines, at least, are familiar to billions around the world. They are made more extraordinary, of course, because his impact stemmed from the nobility of his example, not the force of his arms. By governing in the same spirit by which he had lived during his imprisonment, Mandela joined George Washington in the select company of revolutionaries who use their newly-gained power to establish freer regimes (however imperfect) than the ones they replaced. Most do nothing of the sort and lash out against their former oppressors. Instead, Mandela invited the warden of his Robben Island prison to his inauguration as South Africa’s first black president. Modern South Africa, for all its problems, is a democratic state with a growing economy. It could have gone a very different way, as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe shows.

Most leaders are easily replaceable – usually more than we think they are, and almost always far more than they think they are. A select few are not. A relative handful of leaders have the opportunity to change the course of history, for better or worse. Moments of crisis and transition are ones in which a single person at the place at the right time can have enormous impact. As David Ben-Gurion made Israel, and Abraham Lincoln remade the United States, Nelson Mandela reforged South Africa. He was not the only reason for post-apartheid South Africa’s success, but his leadership was surely one of the most important. His death should be an occasion for leaders to take stock of how well they are fulfilling their responsibilities. All of them, as well as every person who aspires to leadership, should look closely at Mandela’s life and say, “If he could do all that under those circumstances, what more can I do?”

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