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HBS Profs On Nelson Mandela’s Passing

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

In a touching tribute to the last Nelson Mandela, Harvard Business School today (Dec. 6) published the thoughts of Dean Nitin Nohria and several faculty members on the man who truly made a difference in the world for all time.

In a statement, Nohria called Nelson Mandela “a truly remarkable voice of our time — one who encouraged us all to be our better selves — is silent. We mourn his passing as we celebrate his impact. In the face of great odds and through acts of courage and conviction, Mandela transformed a nation and its people. And although he professed to be an ordinary man who became a leader only because of extraordinary circumstances, he exemplified the characteristics of leadership we value most highly: integrity, morality, compassion, and humility.”

Here is how three other HBS faculty members remember Nelson Mandela:

Gautam Mukunda, Assistant Professor of Business Administration

It is impossible for any words to do justice to the life of Nelson Mandela. Imprisoned for “treason” for 27 years by the apartheid government of South Africa, he emerged from his Robben Island purgatory as an inspiration to a nation, a continent, and people in every corner of the globe. Almost a decade after he withdrew from public life, Mandela remained the moral center of his nation and an icon throughout the world. While in South Africa earlier this year to research a case, I was amazed how nearly everywhere I went, his name retained its totemic power.

Mandela was, perhaps more than any other person of his era, the incarnation of the idea of the truly indispensable leader. There is no need to recapitulate here his life or achievements. Both were of such magnitude that their outlines, at least, are familiar to billions around the world. They are made more extraordinary, of course, because his impact stemmed from the nobility of his example, not the force of his arms. By governing in the same spirit by which he had lived during his imprisonment, Mandela joined George Washington in the select company of revolutionaries who use their newly-gained power to establish freer regimes (however imperfect) than the ones they replaced. Most do nothing of the sort and lash out against their former oppressors. Instead, Mandela invited the warden of his Robben Island prison to his inauguration as South Africa’s first black president. Modern South Africa, for all its problems, is a democratic state with a growing economy. It could have gone a very different way, as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe shows.

Most leaders are easily replaceable – usually more than we think they are, and almost always far more than they think they are. A select few are not. A relative handful of leaders have the opportunity to change the course of history, for better or worse. Moments of crisis and transition are ones in which a single person at the place at the right time can have enormous impact. As David Ben-Gurion made Israel, and Abraham Lincoln remade the United States, Nelson Mandela reforged South Africa. He was not the only reason for post-apartheid South Africa’s success, but his leadership was surely one of the most important. His death should be an occasion for leaders to take stock of how well they are fulfilling their responsibilities. All of them, as well as every person who aspires to leadership, should look closely at Mandela’s life and say, “If he could do all that under those circumstances, what more can I do?”

Professor Linda Hill, Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration and faculty chair of the HBS Leadership Initiative.

We know that the increasing diversity within business organizations and the growing interdependence of players—from business partners to NGOs—within a business ecosystem mean that leaders need to adopt a more inclusive, collaborative style. It’s also becoming clear that today’s complex environment often demands a team approach to problem solving. This requires a leader who, among other things, is comfortable sharing power and generous in doing so, is able to see extraordinary potential in ordinary people, and can make decisions with a balance of idealism and pragmatism. There’s a term I use to describe this leadership model: leading from behind…. I think it captures the type of leader I’m talking about. I got the idea from reading Nelson Mandela. Several years ago—jet-lagged in my hotel room in Cape Town, overlooking Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned—I was reading his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. At the time, I was working on an article about leadership in the twenty-first century, and I came across a passage in which Mandela recalls how a leader of his tribe talked about leadership:

“A leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”