Tribute to Mandela: When stakes are high, wise leaders know when to give ground

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
– Don Schlitz

The beloved Madiba is gone. Much has been said about his legacy, but what can his life can each us about leading change in our own lives? In the seminar, Leading Change, at Princeton, we explore the importance of selling out and settling skills in being an effective leader.

Bishop Desmond Tutu admits in his book “No Future without Forgiveness”, that negotiators leading the transition to South Africa’s democracy had to settle. While many Black South Africans, the vast majority of citizens, wanted to see harsh reprisals against perpetrators of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation process was an acknowledgement that pure justice was going to be impossible.

For one, in the chaos of what was essentially a civil war, it turned out that there were no angels as Blacks often launched bloody attacks in revenge, and against each other. Then, was the prickly fact that had a legalistic approach been taken, apartheid laws made White atrocities technically legal and the evidence needed was in the hands of a regime that was still led by Whites. The same Whites still controlled the state machinery and the economy at large. Basically, their buy-in was needed to transition to a post-apartheid dispensation.

The best deal that Black leaders could get, often against vehement opposition in their own ranks, was a process of confession and amnesty. The idea was to focus on the future where some of the wrongs of the past could be remedies over time.

Difficult as it may have been to let bygones be bygones, and to sit across the table from the erstwhile enemy, this settlement lies at the heart of South Africa’s success. A myriad of formal, symbolic concessions ensued – including a flag that was a jumble of colours to accommodate different cultures.

Enter Mandela. Having paid a high personal price at the hands of the apartheid regime, he was most justified in seeking revenge. If he was able to lay down his bow, then everyone else had to follow. This is why he was so uniquely placed to do the ugly work of compromise. While South Africa, like all other nations, remains a work in progress, it has much to teach us as leaders about how change in real life often falls short of our idealized notions. And how peace, freedom and justice are secured one step at a time.

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