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Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela on Robben Island

Posted on November 26, 2017 at 12:25 AM

Before he was elected as South Africa’s president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela spent 27 years in prison, from his mid-forties to his early seventies. Eighteen of those years were spent on Robben Island, a former island leper colony turned into a brutal prison. Instead of breaking him, that ordeal shaped Mandela into the extraordinary man that emerged when his country needed him to save the peace and deliver democracy. (Mandela is so beloved in South Africa, his image graces not just some, but all of their paper currency.)

Here are 5 of the leadership lessons I learned this month when I toured Robben Island.

Each One Teach One – Mandela realized that the front-line guards at Robben Island were often young and poorly educated, while Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were typically highly educated. Mandela used this advantage to build a more equal relationship with the guards. He focused on a strategy he called “each one teach one” – each prisoner was responsible for teaching a guard basic skills they were lacking. The prisoners executed this strategy in the limestone mine that they had to manually toil in each day. They turned the crevice in the mine intended to be a bathroom into a classroom where they tutored guards in skills like reading. By doing so, Mandela realized that the guards would begin to see the prisoners as humans, not just as prisoners, and give them more respect.

Avoid Divide and Conquer – The management of the prison had a policy to provide different levels of food, supplies and treatment to prisoners based on their race. Mandela and his fellow black political prisoners received the least. The strategy of the prison was to create dissension between the prisoners. Prisoners with advantages would want to curry favor with the guards to keep those privileges, while prisoners with the least would feel envious of those with advantages. Mandela saw through this strategy and it probably strengthened his resolve for equality among all races.

Pick the Weakest Link in Unjustice to Attack First – Robert Sobukwe was another political prisoner on Robben Island. He was considered so dangerous he was held in solitary confinement in a house built especially for him. Sobukwe was feared because he had led the revolt against the Pass Law. Sobukwe had deliberately picked that law to protest because he realized that there was no way to enforce it if masses broke the law at once. If masses of citizens turned themselves in for not carrying their pass, the jails were not big enough to hold them all, meaning police would have to force some change in the implementation in the law. Once the people put a dent into one part of the whole legal system of apartheid, they would get confidence to challenge the rest. (Sadly, the protest Sobukwe led resulted in the Sharpville Massacre, where police killed 69 demonstrators.)

Honor Your Predecessors – Mandela realized that he was just one part of a line of brave leaders who pushed the fight for equality and democracy over the goal line. He continued to pay respect to his fellow leaders, such as Sobukwe and Steve Biko, who had not survived long enough to see his election to the presidency.

Record Your History – Mandela wrote his journal and smuggled it out by hiding it among the trees and tomato plants he tended in the prison yard. Mandela realized that the lessons he was learning needed to be passed on to others. The lessons would not only inspire others in his day to take action, but would also ensure that future generations would not forget the ordeal it took to earn the freedom they enjoy.

The Arc of History Bends to the Good – While the whole experience seeing Robben Island overwhelmed me, one image had a surprisingly big impact on me. It was a picture of the steps leading to the cell block where Mandela and other political prisoners were held. In his 18 years in captivity in that cell block, I wondered how may times Manedela and other prisoners limped up these stairs after a day of manual labor in the limestone pits, headed for the cell without a bed or plumbing. I wonder how those men would feel to see a wheelchair accessible lift installed on those same steps today. How far the future of their prison becoming a World Heritage Site set up to tell their story must have seemed to them as inmates. How remarkable they were to make that future happen.

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Categories: People Leadership, Organizational Values, Values Statement