Learning from Mandela: On Leading without Permission
Editor's note: This is the third of a
four-part series on what journalists can learn from the leadership of
South Africa's Nelson Mandela.
For more than 27 years, Nelson Mandela helped lead the fight against apartheid from a series of prison cells. During those years he began his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, and gave all aspiring leaders the opportunity to reflect on his experiences and insights. In today's excerpt, Mandela explains his decision, while still imprisoned, to invite the South African government to begin peace talks –- without the permission or blessing of the African National Congress (ANC).
I chose to tell no one what I was about to do. Not my colleagues upstairs (in the prison) or those (at ANC headquarters) in Lusaka. The ANC is a collective, but the government had made collectivity in this case impossible. I did not have the security or the time to discuss these issues with my organization. I knew that my colleagues upstairs would condemn my proposal, and that would kill my initiative even before it was born. There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way ...
Considering the challenges currently facing news organizations, none of Mandela's reflections on leadership struck me as more relevant than this one.
How do I, a newsroom leader, decide that it's time to stop waiting for "the answer" -- and act?
How do I identify the "new direction" my staff should take -- and how do I gain enough confidence to take my staff there?
How do I measure the risks? How do I respond to success? To failure?
And -- this is a big question –- how do I decide to go there even if I don't have permission?
These questions are not just for the people who run entire newsrooms –- they are questions for everyone with any leadership responsibility.
When should I -- whether I supervise three people or 300 -- "move out ahead of the flock?" When do I act first and ask permission later? When do I risk my job and my staff's success on my belief in a "new direction?"
Each of us will arrive at different answers, and that's how it should be -- all of our circumstances are different. But one fact applies to everyone who faces these questions: We earn the right to lead boldly.
By the time Mandela acted unilaterally to seek the start of negotiations, he had worked for more than 40 years for the cause of freedom. He had established his credibility as a loyal and committed ANC member. He had surrendered any hope of a normal professional or family life. He had traveled for months at a time, working with and living with the South African people, learning about their needs, their passions, their fears. His days were an endless series of collaborations and confrontations with others who shared his hunger for freedom. For years, he lived a fugitive's existence, risking his life and, ultimately, sacrificing his own personal freedom for the cause of a free and equal South Africa.
Yes, Nelson Mandela earned the right to act boldly.
Have I committed myself to learning all I can about the staff I lead, the public I serve, the environment in which we're competing? Am I informed about facets of the business that go beyond my direct responsibilities?
Have I exhibited a selflessness that makes it clear to my staff, my colleagues and my bosses that I am more committed to our success than to mine?
Have I demonstrated a willingness to take responsibility for my decisions -- and to share credit for our successes?
Do people believe me? In me?
How do I respond when those who work for me act without permission? Do I punish? Reward? Caution? Encourage?
Do I, as a rule, work within the organization? Am I collaborative? Do I seek to persuade others about my ideas, and am I open to theirs? And once the organization has chosen a path, do I support that decision –- or do I engage in guerrilla warfare?
And when I do decide to go in a new direction –- without permission –- are others likely to consider it a well-intentioned act of principle? Or my latest solo adventure?
Leaders, Nelson Mandela says, sometimes have to go off in a new direction.
Have I earned the right to be that kind of leader?