As I See It: Lessons from Robben Island
August 18, 2008 Victor Rozek
Richard Stengel describes him as “the closest thing the world has to a secular saint.” And Stengel is in a good position to know. For two years, the managing editor of Time collaborated with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. How better to describe a man who endured 27 years of hellish captivity, emerged unembittered, and rejected vengeance in favor of creating a more perfect union.
Stengel recently wrote an article in which he shares his reflections on Mandela’s leadership qualities honed over nine decades of tumultuous and heroic living. Not all are equally relevant to IT (and I’ve taken the liberty of high-grading), but for those who aspire to manage others–or even those looking for a model to guide the maturation of their character–there is much to be learned from a man who rose above an impossible past to build an improbable nation.
The first quality Stengel observed was Mandela’s courage. Certainly none of us are called upon to exercise the same degree of courage required of a revolutionary, but who can say that our individual choices are any easier to make.
The nugget of Stengel’s observation is that banishing fear is impossible. Mandela himself admits to often being fearful, and with good reason. But “courage is not the absence of fear,” observes Stengel. “It’s inspiring others to move beyond it.”
Very few people are able to live without some level of fear that continuously churns in the background of their consciousness like a looping subroutine. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of losing a job, fear of speaking up, fear of leading, fear of not having enough, fear of not being enough, fear of being disliked; we each carry our own demons and they manifest in our approach to work and our relationship to others.
Usually, fear manifests by being debilitating, preventing us from achieving our full potential. No less a notable than W. Edwards Deming, the man who kick-started the Japanese economy after the World War II with his focus on quality and process control, included “Drive out fear” as one of his famous 14 points. Creating an environment where people are permitted to learn from their mistakes; where they are not threatened or intimidated, and their jobs are not imperiled every time the economy hiccups, releases untapped creativity and encourages risk-taking. Additionally, when managers provide a safe working environment, they are invariably rewarded with loyal employees.
For IT managers, inspiring others to move beyond fear requires two seemingly contradictory traits: flexibility and consistency. Being flexible means using a persona appropriate to the situation. One-size management does not fit all. A flexible manager understands when to transition between roles as teacher, confidant, advisor, disciplinarian, visionary, and leader. He models behaviors congruent with the demands of the situation, signaling reliability and inspiring trust. Applying these personas consistently promotes safety by allowing people to know what they can expect in any given situation. When employees are able to rest in the accuracy of their expectations–even in the midst of turmoil–the energy commonly applied to managing anxiety and stress can be employed productively. Thus, employees rise above their own fears because those fears are not needlessly activated by management.
Another of Mandela’s leadership traits is the ability to “lead from the back,” allowing others to “believe they are in front.” It was a lesson, Stengel says, that Mandela learned as a young boy herding cattle. It does no good to stand before a herd of cattle (or sheep for that matter) and wave them on to greener pastures. They can only be driven from behind. And while not all employees are cattle or sheep, effective leadership is nonetheless multidirectional. There are times when top-down directive is appropriate, and times when consensus is vital. Setting clear objectives, for example, is leading from the front. Allowing staff to decide how those objectives will be met is leading from the rear.
However compliant an IT department, everyone has a unique contribution to make and deserves a turn in the limelight. Mandela knew it was important to share the stage. He listened for understanding rather than dominating meetings and, whenever possible, incorporated the thinking of his staff in his decision making. Leaders become beloved when they spread the credit and absorb the blame.
Much of what passes for leadership is based on old military models that value gung-ho tenacity and victory at all cost. Work has to be tough, and so do workers. If things are easy, something must be wrong. But one of Mandela’s lessons is that “quitting is leading too.” Managers can do too much (especially first-time managers who have yet to learn delegation). Employees can be asked to do too much, or forced to waste needless energy on projects everyone knows will never be successfully implemented.
Over time, software systems become like old cars, demanding more and more frequent repairs. The astute manager will recognize the point at which maintenance costs exceed the cost of new car payments. Knowing when to let go is as important as knowing when to hang on. Hopeless causes can at least be romanticized (as many people working for NGOs can attest); but being asked to pursue futility is simply exhausting.
Which brings us to Mandela’s embracement of complexity. Stengel observed that to Mandela, “nothing is black or white.” Issues, and the human motivations that create them, are composites of past action and future aspiration. It was not sufficient for Mandela to condemn apartheid as evil, he understood its origins to be “historical, sociological, and psychological.” That insight allowed him to navigate the maze of conflicting interests and objections, and identify the tactics most likely to achieve his desired ends.
In the workplace, being more practical than ideological allows management to deal with what’s real rather than what they would like to be real (note Detroit’s resistance to building a high-mileage, non-polluting car, fueled by the belief that gas-guzzling and big will always be desirable features). In the late 1980s when IBM was hemorrhaging billions, it decided to have its first layoff in the history of the company. Of course it wasn’t called a layoff (which was a tactical mistake), but had the computer maker clung to its historic beliefs about itself, it would have had a much more difficult time surviving the transition to a new economic order. The job of management is not to compromise the company’s values, but to adjust them as reality demands and ensure that the perfect does not become the enemy of the possible.
So what changed for Mandela? How did a young man who Stengel described as “emotional, headstrong, [and] easily stung,” walk into prison and emerge nearly three decades later a better man.
Mandela offered an elegant answer. “I came out mature,” he said.
Somehow, against all odds, the horrors of Robben Island were used by Mandela as compost from which sprung the most unlikely blossoms of vision, restraint, compassion, and tactical brilliance. Perhaps Mandela’s most enduring and unappreciated gift to the peoples and nations of the world has been to redefine what it means to be “mature.”
We all inhabit prisons of our own making. It is the rare and justly celebrated person, whether in politics, or management, or any other endeavor, who is able to measurably expand the walls.