In spite of all that he experienced during the era of apartheid, Nelson Mandela was able to understand the people around him and to transcend his experiences and interact with everyone from a place of respect. He was able to understand the national experience and the experience of individuals. He was able to treat everyone, including his jailers and people who most would consider his enemies, as human beings worthy of his respect. And in giving respect he was able to earn it.
Here is a quote from the book that illustrates the point. The Sisulu referenced here is Walter Sisulu a “veteran ANC (African National Congress) organizer” who is six years older than Mandela and for many years shared a prison cell with Mandela.
“It was Sisulu, for example, who best understood how to thaw the white jailers’ hearts. The key to it all, as he would explain much later, was ‘respect, ordinary respect.’ He did not want to crush his enemies. He did not want to humiliate them. He did not want to repay them in kind. He just wanted them to treat him with no-frills, run-of-the-mill respect.
“That was precisely what the rough, undereducated white men who ruled over his prison wanted too, and that was what Mandela endeavored to give them right from the start, however hellish they made life for him.”
Time and again, the author relates the many ways Mandela showed others respect. Mandela, quite literally, spoke their language, learning Afrikaans while in prison. He appreciated character and talent and, as president, appointed staff based on those characteristics rather than racial identity. With person after person, he disarmed them by treating them with respect.
Invictus is a great story of leadership on the international scale and yet the difference made in little details - by Mandela’s ability to treat others with respect. For us, in organizational leadership, it is those little details that are important. When we take the time to understand what is important to another, we convey respect. When we really listen to what someone has to say, we convey respect. When we acknowledge another’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it, we convey respect. And when people respect each other as human beings and act on that respect, it is possible to find common ground. And common ground is a place where leadership can take root.
If “simple, ordinary respect” can help a nation stop from tearing itself apart, what might it do for our organizations?