Last week London and the entire world were celebrating the 90th birthday of a living legend, an Icon and a role model : Nelson "Rolihlahla" Mandela.

As Richard Stengel said this month in the Times Magazine, Nelson Mandela has made enough trouble for several lifetimes. He liberated a country from a system of violent prejudice and helped unite white and black, oppressor and oppressed, in a way that had never been done before. Mandela is the closest thing the world has to a secular saint, but he would be the first to admit that he is something far more pedestrian: a politician. He overthrew apartheid and created a non-racial democratic South Africa by knowing precisely when and how to transition between his roles as warrior, martyr, diplomat and statesman. Uncomfortable with abstract philosophical concepts, he would often say that an issue "was not a question of principle; it was a question of tactics." He is a master tactician.

As we enter the main stretch of a historic presidential campaign in America, there is much that he can teach the two candidates. The Madiba's Rules (Madiba, his clan name, is what everyone close to him calls him) are mostly practical. Many of them stem directly from his personal experience. All of them are calibrated to cause the best kind of trouble: the trouble that forces us to ask how we can make the world a better place.

[Following are excerpts from the article]

1. Courage is not the absence of fear — it's inspiring others to move beyond it. Mandela was often afraid during his time underground. "Of course I was afraid!" he would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. "I can't pretend that I'm brave and that I can beat the whole world." But as a leader, you cannot let people know. "You must put up a front."

And that's precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.

2. Lead from the front — but don't leave your base behind. Prison gave him the ability to take the long view. It had to; there was no other view possible. He was thinking in terms of not days and weeks but decades. "Things will be better in the long run," he sometimes said. He always played for the long run.

3. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front. When he finally did speak at meetings [with his staff], 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."

4. Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport. As far back as the 1960s, Mandela began studying Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans who created apartheid. This was strategic in two senses: by speaking his opponents' language, he might understand their strengths and weaknesses and formulate tactics accordingly. But he would also be ingratiating himself with his enemy. He even brushed up on his knowledge of rugby, the Afrikaners' beloved sport, so he would be able to compare notes on teams and players.

5. Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer. Mandela would often invite into his home men he didn't fully trust. He had them to dinner; he called to consult with them; he flattered them and gave them gifts. Mandela is a man of invincible charm — and he has often used that charm to even greater effect on his rivals than on his allies.

Mandela would always include in his brain trust men he neither liked nor relied on. He would pick up the phone and call them on their birthdays. He would go to family funerals. He saw it as an opportunity."

Mandela believed that embracing his rivals was a way of controlling them: they were more dangerous on their own than within his circle of influence. He cherished loyalty, but he was never obsessed by it. After all, he used to say, "people act in their own interest." It was simply a fact of human nature, not a flaw or a defect. The flip side of being an optimist — and he is one — is trusting people too much. But Mandela recognized that the way to deal with those he didn't trust was to neutralize them with charm.

6. Appearances matter — and remember to smile. We sometimes forget the historical correlation between leadership and physicality. George Washington was the tallest and probably the strongest man in every room he entered. Size and strength have more to do with DNA than with leadership manuals, but Mandela understood how his appearance could advance his cause.

7. Nothing is black or white. Life is never either/or. Decisions are complex, and there are always competing factors. To look for simple explanations is the bias of the human brain, but it doesn't correspond to reality. Nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears.

8. Quitting is leading, too. Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make.
In the history of Africa, there have been only a handful of democratically elected leaders who willingly stood down from office. Mandela was determined to set a precedent for all who followed him — not only in South Africa but across the rest of the continent. He would be the anti-Mugabe, the man who gave birth to his country and refused to hold it hostage.

Ultimately, the key to understanding Nelson Mandela is those 27 years in prison. The man who walked onto Robben Island in 1964 was emotional, headstrong, easily stung. The man who emerged was balanced and disciplined. He is not and never has been introspective.

Asked by Richard Stengel, how the man who emerged from prison differed from the young man who had entered it, he said, "I came out mature."

There is nothing so rare — or so valuable — as a mature man.

Happy birthday, MADIBA



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