Mindfulness from a Prison Cell

Today as we take time to reflect on President Mandela’s life and how he changed history not only for South Africa but truly for the entire world, I’m reposting this blog about two of Mandela’s exceptional leadership qualities: magnanimity and empathy. Being sequestered and imprisoned, Mandela turned within to find his inner strength and mastery for his transition from a dissenter to a world leader.  His ability to let go of the hatred he endured and to embrace his enemies — those who imprisoned him — enabled him to build trust among a sharply divided country and become one of history’s most transformational leaders. 

images-2Last week there was much focus on South Africa and the transformation of this country by Nelson Mandela. As President Mandela continues to fight for his life — and heal his lungs damaged during his prison term – one cannot help but reflect on the contribution of this amazing and inspirational leader.

Richard Stengel collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography and traveled with him everywhere. Eating with him, watching him campaign, hearing him think out loud, Stengel wrote Mandela’s Way.  Stengel offers insightful lessons for leaders and he also touches on two qualities that contributed to Mandela’s leadership legacy — magnanimity and empathy.

Reflecting on these qualities and how the practice of mindfulness is being preached for business leaders, I could not help but wonder if Mandela’s time in prison and solitary confinement moved him into almost a constant state of mindfulness. Not that we want to find ourselves in President Mandela’s solitary confinement cell, but in a sense it’s having that time of deep reflection that executives, leaders and managers struggle to find in today’s “on” world.

Stengel writes of his interaction with Mandela about the impact of prison on the person, on the leader, he became:

“Many times I asked him, how is the man who emerged in prison in 1990 different from the man who went into prison in 1964? He kind of hated that question. But finally, out of frustration, he said to me, ‘I came out mature.’ In a way, that is such a key line. Prison was his great teacher. Prison was kind of a crucible for him. It taught him the long view. The young man who went into prison, in his mid-40s, was a passionate, tempestuous “rabble-rouser,” as he called himself. He was much more of a firebrand. Prison changed him. In some ways, what Mandela’s Way is about is learning those things that he learned in prison at a fraction of the cost that he had to pay.”

The definition of magnanimity captures so much of what we look for in our leaders — loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity. According to Mandela, this quality helped him be more controlled, self-disciplined, more measured and to take the long view of what he needed to accomplish. What comes immediately to mind is Mandela’s brilliant and unique venture to unite the apartheid-torn land by enlisting the Afrikaner’s national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. That required a truly magnanimous leader.

Similarly empathy, a quality most often cited of strong leaders, is demonstrated so often and so frequently that it’s hard to chose what best captures Mandela’s ability to reach out and “address the hearts” of his friends and enemies. One example Stengel notes is how Mandela learned the Afrikaner’s Dutch dialect and let them keep their national anthem. His leadership was based on the strength of what he believed in – uniting South Africa.

A recent NYT op-ed column by Bill Keller noted that Mandela was a consummate negotiator. “Once he got you to the bargaining table, he was not going to leave empty-handed. Mandela bargained with Afrikaner militants, Zulu nationalists and the white government that had imprisoned him for 27 years. He was an expert at deducing how far each side could go. He was patient. He was opportunistic, using every crisis to good effect. He understood that half the battle was convincing your own side that a concession could be a victory. And he was willing to take a risk. Mandela usually seemed to be having the time of his life. Perhaps this is because (sadly for his family) the movement was his life. He shook every hand as if he was discovering a new friend and maintained a twinkle in his eye that said: this is fun.”

And to think, this man developed into such an amazing leader not testing and experimenting with his leadership style over some 30 years. Instead he found his voice, his commitment and his passion to lead by spending these years in a meditative and mindful journey – imprisoned physically but freer than most of us in his ability to go deep within to explore and uncover what he needed to do.

About YogaUnbound

In developing leadership programs for executives, Gail Mann draws upon her 30 years’ experience in corporate marketing, most recently as the Director of Development Communications and Marketing for Partners HealthCare. A graduate of Simmons School of Management, Gail’s dedication to leadership and management was the driving force in her corporate career and has become the core principal of YogaUnbound. Combining leadership and management principles with yoga and meditation techniques, YogaUnbound’s mission brings mindfulness training to leaders and executives for enhanced decision-making, productivity and stress reduction.
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