A leadership lesson Hillary Clinton supporters could learn from Nelson Mandela
A few weeks ago, while working on a video shoot waiting for the people to be recorded to arrive, a friend mentioned how he expected the women to be more likely to wear makeup.
A woman on the shoot called him misogynist.
I asked what was misogynist about what he said.
She said the expectation that women had to wear makeup.
I pointed out that he didn’t say anything about obligation.
She repeatedly called him misogynist, showing no willingness to consider other perspectives or even listen, as far as I could tell.
Fast forward to now. I’m catching up on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. I started reading it earlier this year and loved it, but could only read a chapter here and there. At 600 pages, it takes a sustained break to give it the sustained attention I think it deserves.
Three quotes seemed relevant to the conversation at the video shoot. The first, on page 159, came in the early 1950s, when he held a leadership position in the African National Congress, then an important organization but nowhere the strength it would later have, nor comparable to the government. After publicly and indignantly chastising an ally, he wrote
I had spoken hastily, without thinking, without a sense of responsibility, and I now greatly regretted it. I immediately withdrew my charge and apologized. I was a young man who attempted to make up for his ignorance with militancy.
Next, visiting his childhood home in 1955, for the first time in 13 years, during which he had finished grown to a figure of national importance in politics, finished law school, and started practicing law. His childhood home was in the country and he seems to have felt more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than people there.
On page 184, he wrote about a disagreement with someone also working for equality but differing on a point:
I said that if I were in a position similar to his, I would try to subordinate my own interests to those of the people. I immediately regretted that last point because I have discovered that in discussions it never helps to take a morally superior tone to one’s opponent. I noticed that [the person he was speaking to] Daliwonga stiffened when I made this point and I quickly shifted the discussion to more general issues.
The third quote came on his return from that trip to his childhood home. He and other ANC leaders were discussing how to respond to another government restriction. On page 189, he wrote
Any suggestion of participating in apartheid structures in any way was automatically met with angry opposition. In my early days, I, too, would have strenuously objected. But my sense of the country was that relatively few people were ready to make the sacrifices to join the struggle. We should meet people on their own terms, even if that meant appearing to collaborate. My idea was that our movement should be a great tent that included as many people as possible.
On a personal level, the quotes display personal leadership, growth, and humility.
On a practical and social level, they show the practice of one of the few people who became the father of a nation. He wasn’t perfect but he was effective—among other things, he negotiated from prison with two presidents of his country for his release, later to become president himself.
I believe Mandela wanted people to learn that calling people names out of indignation, no matter how right you consider yourself, alienates and undermines support. I heard so many insults at Donald Trump and his supporters of racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, and so on that I can’t help but see Mandela’s lessons imply that Clinton supporters’ behavior created votes for Trump.
Considering what I fear a Trump presidency may do to our environment, national health care, Supreme Court, and so on, I hope people stop fueling their own opposition with their own ineffective behavior.
Mandela defeated literal Nazis—many who created apartheid supported National Socialism during World War II—not by calling them names, however justified he would have felt, but by behaving and communicating in ways that led people to follow and support him.
Actually, he started ineffectively, but learned and, with humility, grew.
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