Dance like Mandela

Uncategorized May 04, 2020

There it was, sitting on my desk, my face akin to Charlie Bucket after finding his golden ticket in a Wonka bar - 'You're invited', it started 'to an audience with Nelson Mandela'.

One of the world's greatest leaders, a man who created impact and legacy in immeasurable quantities was about to change the way I viewed leadership forever.

My mum couldn't believe it either - I extended the invitation to her as she had been an avid 'Anti-Apartheid' campaigner in her youth - she was about to see a man's life turn full circle and be part of an experience that no-one who was in the room would ever forget.

What Nelson Mandela taught me that day was the true mark of leadership. How, when delivered positively, the smallest, simplest and most visceral responses to reading people can totally transform a group, an organisation and a nation.

Clearly, long-distance travel, an extended tour of London and an early start meant that we were not only enthralled by his appearance and onstage presence but by his slightly frailer-than-we-remembered frame. We were in awe of a man whose speeches, deeds and forgiveness were a lesson to us all. As he took his seat to listen to the poet laureate recite and numerous dignitaries speak fondly, he looked slightly uncomfortable. He'd been in this position hundreds of times before but somehow it didn't sit well with him. The audience looked lovingly at the world's favourite grandfather and somehow, in his eyes, we knew something was wrong.

I often make the distinction between management and leadership - management being process, tasks, things to be done and leadership being vision, culture and people. It was at this point I recognised what I now think was going through Mr.Mandela's mind - everything about the event had been stage managed to make sure that it was just perfect. Nothing wrong with that as management is an important part of making things tick - however, it was clear that he was struggling with the amount of management around him. It wasn't what he wanted everyone to feel - it wasn't his vision for the session.

Next up was Joan Armatrading - she had written a song for him and, as she got to the second verse, something amazing happened. On sensing the crowd's passion for the song and the undoubted love we all had for him, Mr.Mandela slipped his minders and stood up.

We cheered.

He moved beautifully across the stage and he danced. He danced like no-one was watching, like all he wanted to do in the whole world was feel the beautiful music that had been created in his honour.

We all stood up.

He moved with the grace of a much younger man and to loud, triumphant cheers, clapping and singing...

We all danced...together.

My mum and I hugged and we realised we'd seen something so rare, so beautiful and so life-changing.

What I learned that day is that, often, as leaders, we can get wrapped up in the day to day 'management' of our organisations. We know it's wrong, our people know it's wrong and we don't get the best out of them. They want to feel moved, inspired and let free of the shackles of normality.

Sometimes, like Nelson Mandela did that day, they just want to see us 'dance' and they will join in wholeheartedly, moving to a powerful beat that inspires them to get out of their comfort zone, feel alive and part of something bigger than a spreadsheet or a strategy plan.

Boom! Leaders do this regularly - they know sometimes you just have to...

'Dance like Mandela'

(image by Alamy)


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