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When I ask people to name a great contemporary leader almost 9/10 will name Nelson Mandela, and this got me thinking, “What is it about Mandela or ‘Madiba’, as he was affectionately known, that makes him so revered”. Mandela is not alone in spending time imprisoned, nor was he alone as a militant activist. There have been many people past and present. However, Mandela stands out head and shoulders above these others. Why? Because of not only what he did but in particular how he did it.

Mandela was a man of quiet dignity with that ever-beaming smile and an immense and modest sense of humour. He was also a rare visionary who could see beyond the immediate struggles and country’s pain. He had a compassionate spirit, which he especially displayed towards his capturers, openly demonstrating forgiveness for those who had caused him pain and suffering. It was how he publicly displayed his warmth, passion, humour, humility and energy, combined with strong internalised values and beliefs that helped propel him to greatness.

Mandela, like Gandhi, was very self-aware not only of his strengths but also of the shortcomings. He had the ability to transcend himself for the betterment of those around him and for the higher cause. His personal pain at causing his family to suffer, seeing the nation he led sink into corruption, and admitting his own mistakes, never overwhelmed him nor stopped his resolve to make things better. Mandela was not a perfect man, and in acknowledging his flaws, he became even greater in the eyes of many. Mandela once said, “One of the most difficult things is not to change society—but to change yourself.” Gandhi himself famously said, “be the change you want to see” meaning – say, do and act yourself the way you want others to talk, act and behave.

Great leaders adjust their behaviour to match the situation or circumstance as they encounter. In times of adversity, difficulties or danger these leaders will rise to the occasion and through words or actions symbolise the essence of leadership. They will move to the front, set the standards, and be an example for others to follow. When victory is won or accolades to be had, these leaders will again behave with humility or move to the rear and allow others to bask in the light of victory. Mandala himself said, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

What a stark contrast Mandela’s life was compared to the behaviour of many political and business leaders of today who flip and flop mindlessly, taking credit and wanting the limelight when things are going well, but quick to blame others and avoid responsibility when things are poor. Is there a lesson to learn here that provides us with a simple yet powerful focus on how to be the best we can be?

I believe there is and it comes down to a simple formula – U = ∑ B

The Power of “U”
U = ∑ B
You are equal to the sum of your behaviours (underscored).

“U”– Is straightforward and stands for “you”, your-self, or the whole person.

“∑”– “the sum of”. We are prone to labelling others as we see them, through their repeated behaviours.

B Represents your behaviour, underscored to indicate that there is more to this element than first meets the eye.

To understand this equation will require consideration and the integration of a number of psychological theories, including Behaviourism (Watson & Skinner), Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT- Ellis) and, Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT – Meichenbaum et al). As well as understanding how we assign meaning, pass judgement and make assumptions to life events based on our personal values and belief system, developed through exposure to our varied experiences. The only reality we can know is the one that consists of the constructs we have created. Values, beliefs and experiences are all constructs – values are constructs that we hold as important; beliefs are constructs that we hold to be true; and experiences are constructs about reality. The way in which we see and experience the world – our worldview – depends on how we interpret the outer world of nature, things and people, and on our level of consciousness, which in turn depends on our value priorities.

W.M. Marston (psychologist, inventor, and writer) developed a self-efficacy model, the Whole Person Concept (below). Which is based on our constructed view of our environment and our constructed view of ourselves. This model allows us to comprehend that we are influenced by all the stimuli in our environment, which impact our construct of personal values and beliefs, which in turn influence our emotions, thinking and the choices we make, and finally exposing (above the surface) through our behaviours and our concept of self to the world. The model does not distinguish between conscious or unconscious decisions, only representing the part of you that others see and feel; which they use to make assumptions and pass judgement. Others do not see what you stand for or believe in unless you demonstrate them through your behaviours.

There are many applications for this model in our everyday lives. For example, ever heard of the useless apprentice, who after much labelling (stimuli from the environment) begins to believe that they are useless, which then develops into victim style behaviour in continuously asking for direction, never taking the initiative, not asking questions and routinely making mistakes. This has been termed the Pygmalion Effect, where perception becomes reality for others and ourselves as we behave in one manner or another. Furthermore, when a leader with all the best intentions fails to espouse and reveal themselves through workplace actions, they become known for their inaction or lack of demonstrated leadership.

Developing “U”

Considerable personal power is available to each of us when we discover and are fully aware of our values and beliefs, adjust them to make sure they are balanced and healthy, and create ways to represent them thoughtfully through our actions. Seeking clarity on our personal values and beliefs allows us the opportunity to make the best choices for ourselves. Leaders who are mindful in the exercise of their personal values set a clear visible example. They are aware of why they make the decisions they make, why they behave the way they do, and the influence this has on others.

So can we transform ourselves just as Mandela did for himself?

For me one thing stands out above everything else and that is the fact that Mandela spent 27 years intensely reflecting, understanding and investing hugely in developing his self-awareness and managing his emotions. He was fully aware of himself and later himself as a leader, one who gets their own life in order before engaging in advising others to do the same.

Here are 7 things that YOU can do on a regular basis to build the leader in you:
  1. Take great care of you. Taking care of your physical, mental, spiritual and emotional dimensions is a sign of self-respect. You cannot do great things at work if you do not feel good about yourself.
  2. Get deep into you. The job of the leader is to go below surface elements or issues (for self and others) and to do this great leaders know themselves intimately. They nurture a strong self-awareness and self-relationship. They know their weaknesses and play to their strengths, whilst spending a lot of time reflecting and transcending their fears.
  3. Strengthen your moral fibre. Strength of character is true power – and people can feel it a mile away. Leaders who work on their character walk their talk and are aligned with their core values. We often describe this as integrity, a key trait that develops trust and respect in others.
  4. Develop your courage. It takes courage to chart your own course and be a visionary. It takes a lot of inner strength to do what you think is right even though it may not be easy. We live in a world where so many people walk the path of least resistance. Leading through the power of you is all about taking the road less travelled and doing, not what is easy, but what is right.
  5. Speak your truth. In business today, we say many things to please (or appease) others and to look good in front of The Crowd. Authentic leaders would never betray themselves by using words that misaligned with what they believe. This does not mean saying things that are hurtful or degrading to people. Speaking your truth is simply being open and honest and respectfully staying true to your values and beliefs.
  6. Commit to your own excellence. No human being is perfect. Every single one of us is a work in progress. Authentic leaders commit themselves to excellence in everything that they do. They are constantly pushing the envelope and raising their standards. They do not seek perfection and have the wisdom to know the difference. What would your life look like if you raised your standards well beyond what anyone could ever imagine of you?
  7. Leave your legacy. To live in the hearts of the people around you is to never die (Mandela). Success is wonderful but significance is even better. You were made to contribute and to leave a mark on the people around you. In failing to live from this frame of reference, you betray yourself. Authentic leaders are constantly building their legacies by adding deep value to everyone that they deal with and leaving the world a better place in the process.

Nelson Mandala was a beacon of hope, and like Gandhi before him, a shining example of what a leader can and should be. There was a quote in the movie the Iron Lady by Margaret Thatcher that captures the essence of this article:

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.”

Ed Benier

Ed Benier

Ed is a director at Modal and delivers leadership solutions that create sustainable, positive behaviour change, with the focus on achieving a “leadership culture” within organisations.