What Can Mandela's Jail Cell Teach Us About Leadership? | Sojourners

What Can Mandela's Jail Cell Teach Us About Leadership?

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, Photo by Konrad Glogowski / Flickr.
Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, Photo by Konrad Glogowski / Flickr.

I believe that Nelson Mandela was the greatest political leader of the 20th century — because of his 27 years of spiritual formation in prison. Visiting Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island was the most emotional moment of my visit to South Africa this past summer. How could such a small place so change the world?

I found this quote by Mandela when I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on my last day in South Africa. It’s about how “the cell” drove him much deeper into his interior life. I think his words are a good reflection for us as we choose our elected leaders next week:

“The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”

Let’s reflect on that quote, both personally as leaders in the faith, and politically as we confront a very depressing election.

Know yourself. That is such different advice from what our candidates and other leaders get from their advisors and pollsters and boards of directors who want them to know their audience, their constituency, their potential voters or consumers — but not so much themselves. Leaders are often being told to “be who they need you to be,” and seldom are they invited to go deeper into themselves.

External accomplishments. Leaders’ lives are dominated by exteriority — both in putting yourself and your ideas out there and by the feedback you get in return. That’s natural for leading in the public sphere, but it can lead to defining yourself entirely by the outward life — what you think and what people think of you — to the great and dangerous neglect of the inward life. And that easily deteriorates into deciding what you think by what others think or want from you — how their perceptions define your self-projection. The degeneration into “spinning” what leaders say and do is most painfully evident in an election season like this one. Ask yourself if the candidates you are voting for show more than external results, but also what guides their leadership — what is inside them. Leaders should indeed create external consequences but without being defined by them.

Internal accomplishments. Because exteriority is so dominant for leaders, their interiority can be hard to find. It took jail for Mandela to force the journey to the interior life and define his success by what he could accomplish internally. Both external demands and lack of time are key factors here. Most leaders struggle to find even a little time for quiet space, moments of reflection, or the spiritual disciplines that take our lives to deeper places. The few political leaders that do rigorously carve out private space testify to the enormous difference it makes in their lives and their leadership.

Honesty. What works is more valued by many leaders than what’s right. Being honest, especially with oneself, is so hard to do when the demand to be successful is such a daily requirement. Telling the truth — and more importantly, living truthfully — is the moral foundation for genuine leadership. Putting the best story forward, telling things in their best light, or interpreting things in the most positive way can so easily lead to deception, even self-deception. Political scandals abound when politicians deceive themselves. For people of faith, knowing that God knows the truth about us is a vital measure of accountability.

Sincerity. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say makes for the kind of leaders that so many are hungry for these days. People don’t expect sincerity anymore from leaders, and that political cynicism becomes very dangerous. Deciding what you believe or think, then acting upon that in ways that are very transparent to the people around you, creates necessary transparency in society rather than the insincerity and opacity we have come to expect.

Simplicity. The systems we’ve constructed are so complicated, so it’s easy to lose how simple, direct, and clear true leadership is. Simplicity is not shallowness. On the contrary, being simple means cutting through all the distractions and complexities of life to get to the heart of the matter, the plain truths we need to tell, and the clear choices we have to make. Good leaders understand the depth of the problems we have to solve but keep their purposes, goals, and directions both simple and clear.

Humility. This is absolutely the hardest thing for leaders of all kinds. It’s so easy to listen to those warm and excessive introductions before you speak, or to enjoy audience responses too much, or to believe your press clippings. Instead, we need to always be aware of our human limitations, moral shortcomings, and how much we really do need the people around us — especially those closest to us. Leadership can easily cause us to forget our sins and how much we daily need the forgiveness and grace of a loving God — which is the reason for our humility.

Generosity. How much we give, not how much we get, should be the test of leadership. There are far too many perks, privileges, and prerogatives for leaders today. The essence of leadership, from a moral and religious perspective, is essentially service — to our neighbors and to the world that God wants us to take responsibility for. How generous are we with our time, energy, gifts, and resources to all the people and needs that surround us, and how does our generosity create the new opportunities that people are so hungry for?

Variety. We live in a world that loves to offer us a continuous variety of things and experiences to accumulate, all of which command our time and attention. And leaders are offered the most variety of life’s attractions, stealing our focus from the things in most need of our attention. Leaders mush push away all of the “stuff” that preoccupies them in order to really lead.

Look into yourself. That is the continual pilgrimage that leaders most need, and whether we continue that journey will determine the quality of our leadership. Interiority must undergird our exteriority. Internal accomplishments must shape the external ones. We saw that in how Mandela was always ready to challenge his allies as well as his adversaries, doing what he thought was right instead of what was easy or attractive, going deeper instead of just going along.

This is a good week to unpack Mandela’s succinct description of what his jail cell allowed him to do and of what true leadership really is. Let’s examine ourselves by these simple words. And let’s ask these questions of both ourselves and of our political leaders — especially as we go to vote.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

Image: Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, Photo by Konrad Glogowski / Flickr.

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