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An Unexpected Leadership Lesson from Nelson Mandela

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There has been much written and discussed this past year about late South African leader and political icon Nelson Mandela.

 
The recent death of this extraordinary man prompted me to reflect on an important lesson I learned when reading about him a few years back. I’ve used this lesson many times in running my own business and have come to believe that it’s an important—and often unspoken—aspect of leadership.
 
The lesson: Fake it.
 
No, you didn’t read that incorrectly. One of Nelson Mandela’s greatest leadership lessons is that leaders sometimes must pretend in order to inspire their organizations (or, in Mandela’s case, a country)—particularly when things look bleak.
 
In June 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island—South Africa’s most stark and notorious prison. He would spend 18 of his 27 years in prison on the island—often in solitary confinement—before becoming South Africa’s first black president and abolishing apartheid.
 
When Mandela arrived on Robben Island, the warden said, “This is the island. This is where you will die.”
 
Indeed, Mandela’s time in prison was brutal. He was confined in a 7-by-8-foot cell and forced to do backbreaking work, crushing rocks into gravel in a quarry. At first, he was allowed no reading material, though he later turned the prison into what his comrades called “Mandela University.”
In a later interview, Mandela was asked how he maintained such a bright outlook on his situation and the future of South Africa.
 
His answer was as obvious as it was startling: He didn’t.
 
Mandela said many times, he felt complete despair and hopelessness, but outwardly, he “acted.” He pretended so others would not lose hope and continue to press toward a worthwhile goal, even when the obstacles seemed overwhelming.
 
Mandela and the other African National Congress leaders sang freedom songs and danced as they worked, and the authorities were so threatened by their high spirits that they banned them from singing. But politics continued behind prison walls. Mandela wrote and smuggled his autobiography, letters, and political statements from the prison.
 
The key for Mandela was believing that there was something worthwhile to achieve and trusting others to help him when they could. Even in the moments when he didn’t think it was possible, he acted like it was.
 
While there aren’t any business situations I have encountered that even approach the painful experience of Mandela’s time in prison, I have often felt discouraged in my role as a leader in my company. And, as someone who processes situations verbally, I have watched others become alarmed as I work through tough situations out loud.
 
In recent years, when working through a troubling situation, I’ve tried to “act” the part of the leader—sometimes even faking it—until my belief in the possibility of fixing the situation returned. It has worked for me, and it can work for you.
 
Leadership is a remarkable thing. If you’re pursuing something meaningful, staying locked on the end goal inspires others to give more than they thought possible. And as the person in charge, it’s your duty to keep morale high and motivate those working for you to persevere even when times are tough.
 
Nelson Mandela kept people’s spirits up by acting the part and refusing to show his own misery. Even when victory seemed impossible, he held onto his faith that he would persevere and, in doing so, changed the course of human history.
 
Have you ever “faked it” to keep your team’s spirits high? What was the result?
 
Published: May 13, 2014
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Todd Wolfenbarger

Todd Wolfenbarger has more than 25 years of senior marketing experience with Fortune 50 companies in various industries and his own marketing consultancy. He currently serves as president and partner of The Summit Group, an award-winning marketing communications firm located on West Temple in Salt Lake City that specializes in the healthcare, franchise marketing, and consumer retail sectors.

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