LEADERSHIP: Wisdom from Leaders of Influence

I read once that wisdom is knowledge with a long shelf-life. With all the strife around us, it seems leadership wisdom is badly needed on all fronts. Some the proven ideas that have passed the test of time seem to hold promise for some of the most pressing problems we all face.

Over my desk there are seven paintings of leaders that have significantly influenced my life: Mother Teresa, Viktor Frankl, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. As I wrote in the Preface of my book, each face watches over me as I work every day, creating an ever-present reminder of the importance of this journey of continuous renewal that you and I are on at this time in history. There are distinct messages from each of them that always seem to present for me.

Dr. King reminds us why our efforts have significance: “All life is inter-related. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Mother Teresa encourages us to step up and do our part: “Don’t wait for the leaders. Do it alone, person to person.”

Gandhi inspires us when we are personally overwhelmed by the magnitude of the struggle: “When you are after a righteous cause, people pop out of the pavement to help you.”

Viktor Frankl doesn’t let us escape without recognizing that regardless of how difficult and impossible circumstances may appear, we are in charge: “Everything can be taken from a man but . . . the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”

Eleanor Roosevelt tests the authenticity of our leadership: “It is not fair to ask of others to do what you are unwilling to do yourself.”

Rumi reminds us, on many levels, that this is not a journey of thoughtless action: “Attention to small details, makes perfect a large work.”

Nelson Mandela reminds us that “…with freedom comes responsibility.”

LESSONS for a Leader of Influence: Nelson Mandela
I came across a timely piece of wisdom from Nelson Mandela that adds perspective to consider as we examine our own leadership qualities and conviction:

The purpose of studying HISTORY is not to deride human action, not to weep over it, or to hate it, but to LEARN FROM IT as we contemplate our future.”

Perhaps, we are in many ways fortunate to have these turbulent times, because they give us an opportunity to pause — to use what we witness and experience as “teaching moments” — development experiences to take-in and apply with our own innovative twist.

Nelson Mandela turned 90 last year. By chance, I came across a commemorative article by Richard Stengal, MANDELA: His 8 Lessons of Leadership (Time, July 2008). His No.3 Lesson offers some timeless wisdom and a few take-aways for each of us.

LEAD FROM THE BACK — and let others step out in front.

Richard Stengal writes: Mandela loved to reminisce about his boyhood and his lazy afternoons herding cattle. “You know,” he would say, “you can only lead them from behind.” He would then raise his eyebrows to make sure I got the analogy.

As a boy, Mandela was greatly influenced by Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him. When Jongintaba had meetings of his court, the men gathered in a circle, and only after all had spoken did the king begin to speak. “The chief’s job,” Mandela said, “was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. Don’t enter the debate too early,” he used to say.

Mandela also handled his meetings with others with a quiet leadership, allowing others to express themselves from their unique vantage point. Richard Stengal puts the spotlight on this leadership skills in this story:

During the time I worked with Mandela, he often called meetings of his “kitchen cabinet” at his home in Houghton, a lovely old suburb of Johannesburg. He would gather half a dozen men, Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki (who is now the South African President) and others around the dining-room table or sometimes in a circle in his driveway. Some of his colleagues would shout at him — to move faster, to be more radical — and Mandela would simply listen. When he finally did speak at those meetings, he slowly and methodically summarized everyone’s points of view and then unfurled his own thoughts, subtly steering the decision in the direction he wanted without imposing it. The trick of leadership is allowing yourself to be led too. “It is wise,” he said, “to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

Imagine what we could do to solve the problems we face if we could apply the learnings from this one leadership lesson — turning hurt and talk into ACTION. Letting people genuinely step out in front to lead the way. We would learn to…

**** Lead from behind, looking for ways to lift others up by bringing them into the dialogue to explore possibilities; entering at just the right time.

**** We would bring people with clear differences together; listen to them; value what they have to say — allowing them to be who they are.

**** We would mix all the goodness in the ideas, learning to listen and articulate the vision that came from the great diverse mix of intellect, experience, culture, and generational insight.

****We would be willing to “be led” by the wisdom emerging from the group.

Our badly needed dialogue needs to be more than talk, exchange of ideas, and resulting conversations; we have to look at ourselves and “make that change” inside out. We continue to prove that the fastest way to do this is to work together across many dimensions of difference. Not so much with a focus on our individual agendas, but by investing ourselves in something greater than any one of us — to recognize the worn, yet uncharted paths that bear our names; to walk them together; to lead the way for others for the good of all; to create change that endures this time.

Your thoughts? I would love to benefit from your wisdom.


Debbe Kennedy
founder, Global Dialogue Center and
Leadership Solutions Companies
author, Putting Our Differences to Work

Special Credits:
Oil painting by Sally K. Green www.sallykgreen.com; it is one of seven exemplary leaders she painted above my desk; they look over me as I work with a humbling reminder to keep going.

Nelson Mandela quote taken from the “wisdom collection” of Bruce Lloyd, Professor Emeritus, Strategic Management, London South Bank University.

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