It is customary to salute Nelson Mandela as a great leader and statesman, which of course he was. Against all odds, he led South Africa from an unjust, apartheid past to a new state founded upon equality and democratic rights. We salute Mandela for the incredible moral strength he developed during 27 years in prison. And we salute him for the wisdom he found to forgive, let go of resentment, and stay focused on his life-long goal of achieving equality in his country.
Can we also think of Mandela as an innovator?
We can. If we define innovating as bringing about positive change that has value to society, then Mandela is actually at the top of the list. He innovated an entire country. Without the positive change he inspired, South Africa could easily have slipped into chaos, corruption and civil war.
From this point of view, Mandela was not just an innovator. He was one of the greatest innovators of all time, and most of us can only yearn to have even a fraction of the positive impact he had on the world.
So what can Mandela teach us about what it takes to innovate?
Let me share my take on three aspects of Mandela’s life that I believe helped shape his mind, develop his wisdom, and make him the leader and innovator he was.
- A Singularity of Purpose, a Dominant Core Value
The people who change the world or innovate are usually driven by a singularity of purpose that other people just never develop to the same level.
Edison was singleminded in his purpose to invent not just the lightbulb but a new society that used an electric grid and electric devices. Mahatma Gandhi was driven by a near-obsession with truth, a principle that guided all his actions and thinking.
What was Mandela’s singularlity of purpose?
Mandela wrote his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, with the assistance of writer Richard Stengel, who spent three years with Mandela in the process. In Mandela’s Way, his own book on Mandela, Stengel writes, “Nelson Mandela is a man of principle – exactly one. Equal rights for all, regardless of race, class, or gender. Pretty much everything else is a tactic.” The result was that Mandela was both an idealist and a pragmatist – a “thorough-going pragmatist who was willing to compromise, change, adapt, and refine his strategy as long as it got him to the promised land … [which] meant one thing: the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of a non-racial democracy with one person, one vote. Full stop.”
2. Diverse Knowledge
I believe the world still undervalues a simple but significant step Mandela took while in prison. If he had not taken this one step, history might have turned out very differently. It was even an easy step to take. He started a language course in Afrikaans. I sometimes call it the language course that changed the course of history.
By taking a course in Afrikaans, Mandela did two things. First he expanded his mind. All the research shows that the most creative people have developed not just deep knowledge in their particular field or discipline, but they also develop diverse knowledge. They are curious. They develop passions in other fields and learn other subjects. Einstein the scientist was also Einstein the violinist. By studying Afrikaans, Mandela expanded his mind by coming to see life and South Africa from the point of view of his captors.
Second, by learning Afrikaans, Mandela expanded his capacity to understand people differently. He no longer saw his captors as the enemy. They were human beings. He came to know them. They were men just like him. They had families. They had children. They had fears. A surprising bond developed between Mandela and the men who guarded him, all because he had expanded his mind – through a language course.
No one can ever say what might have happened in history but for some particular event. But I think it’s a safe bet Mandela would not have emerged from prison with the depth of wisdom and understanding he had if he had not made this extraordinary effort to speak the language of the people who held him captive.
3. Emotional Wisdom
Emotional intelligence became a popular term beginning in the 1990s. It’s a good start. But it’s not the finish line. People like Mandela took emotional intelligence to the next level, a level we could call emotional wisdom.
For Mandela, this involved a disciplined approach to staying positive and tranforming his life’s negatives and setbacks back into positive ends. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described it this way: “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
It’s a remarkable attitude and skill, and it’s another reason Mandela became, on a grand scale, one of humanity’s remarkable innovators.