My conversation with Nelson Mandela

Living and working in South Africa during its transition from apartheid to democracy under the leadership of two exceptional individuals, President F.W. deKlerk and President Nelson Mandela, was a rare privilege. I worked closely with members of both leaders' governments and with some of the greatest South African business leaders of that time. One of the most transformational moments for me of that period was a short conversation I had with President Mandela. We were both speaking at a YPO University held in Cape Town in 2000. During a quiet moment I was able to ask him the question I had been yearning to put to him since his release from prison ten years before. I observed, using Bishop Desmond Tutu's words and my own childhood recollections, that when he was arrested he was an "aggressive militant." Even his tribal name, Rolihlahla (pronounced Hollishlasha), meant "troublemaker." Yet after twenty-seven years in prison he emerged as a deeply compassionate leader with immediate international stature. What, I asked him, did he learn in prison that was responsible for this dramatic transformation of character and personality? He smiled as he gazed into the distance. Then he turned to me warmly and said: "On my first day in prison I remember feeling devastated at how they had managed to rob me of everything dear to me. I knew I had to find one thing I could hold on to that they could never remove from me. I thought long and hard. Then it struck me. We are each masters of our own dignity. If we choose to retain our dignity no one else can take it away from us. I decided in that moment that I would never lose my dignity." However, he continued to explain to me, that there were far-reaching implications to his decision. Preserving dignity requires at all times that each one of us treat every other person with dignity, irrespective of how they may treat you. "I realized," he said, "that if I were to stay true to my promise, I would need to treat everyone in prison with dignity, and that included my jailers. This is what I learnt in prison, and this has stood me in good stead as I have tried to rebuild a broken nation into a proud one. I learnt no other leadership lessons, only how to treat every person with dignity and with love no matter how they may have treated you or your people in the past." The lesson of dignity. The test of dignity. The embodiment of dignity. That was President Nelson Mandela -- a man who showed me how powerful it is to Lead By Greatness.

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