By Bradley Googins and Philip Mirvis
We recently returned from the first Academy of Management Conference held outside North America in Johannesburg, South Africa filled with wonder at the progress made by South Africa and many of its Sub-Saharan neighbors in addressing daunting political, economic, and social challenges. What accounts for “Africa rising?”
This was a key question at the Academy gathering that brought 200 or so management professors from around the world to meet 100 of their African counterparts at the Gordon Institute of Business Sciences (GIBS). The assembled professors, drawing on B-School frameworks, variously attributed Africa’s rise to increased foreign (and domestic) investment, the spread of wireless telecommunications, the rise of micro-credit, and, in a nod to geo-politics, also cited democratic reforms, national reconciliation processes, and transnational peace-keeping. But the leadership and example of Nelson Mandela kept coming up, voiced by Africans and non-Africans alike.
Now in his 95th year, Mandela’s health was deteriorating the week before we arrived and it was uncertain if he would last through the conference. Moving from uptown high-rises in Joburg’s Sandton area, through impoverished townships, to the oasis in Soweto where Mandela once lived, you could feel the warmth and worry of the populace about their hero, and then sense their spirits rise as Mandela rallied and began to recover. There have been no other leaders in our lifetime like Nelson Mandela who led his country from seemingly certain collapse through a harrowing social transformation, gained worldwide admiration for his vision, courage, and achievements, and who serves today as a beacon for those who believe that leadership can make a decisive difference in human affairs.
Lessons Learned On-African-Ground
The African conference was “not-the-usual” Academy of Management meeting. In addition to the academic paper sessions and symposia, there were workshops, conversation hours, peer learning sessions, and even a South African film festival. Anthony Prangley and his GIBS team led delegates on daylong “journeys” into the heart of South Africa’s biggest challenges: to talk with social entrepreneurs addressing poverty, examine community economic development through private-public partnerships, meet with Boers and ANC leaders on their reconciliation process, and learn how South African multi-nationals operate on a regional and global scale.
Join us on these tours to see social change, and consider how Mandela’s lessons inform action-on-the-ground:
Listen to Nelson Mandela in aLong Walk to Freedom: “There is no passion to be found playing small -- in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” The innovators and social entrepreneurs we met in the fashion district have big hearts, heads, and ambitions. The social-and-economic challenges of “dynamic markets” demand no less.
Today’s economic, social, and environmental problems demand collective action—solutions come only when the private and public sectors and civil society join hands. But there are many in the public sector and in NGOs who still regard business as the “enemy” and very much so in today’s South Africa because business interests had been allied with the apartheid regime. Listen to Mandela’s outreach on these counts “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies” and “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
In their reflections on these exchanges, several delegates cited the “resilience” and “passion” of the social entrepreneurs, and more than a few said they were inspired to share their business knowledge with social entrepreneurs in their home countries.
Academy delegates learned about the history of apartheid, heard from participants in the reconciliation process, and examined, first-hand, the continuing challenges of “inclusion” in the South African rainbow nation and in the Academy of Management. Listen to Mandela: “It always seems to be impossible until it is done.”
“We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” We saw this in the example of one of South Africa’s leading MNCs--an insurance company leading a venture to train and deploy nurses to provide primary health care in rural areas throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. And we saw it among the GIBS faculty and staff, providing world-class education for the world but leadng social change in their own backyard.
Listen to Mandela reflecting on his achievements: “That was one of the things that worried me – to be raised to the position of a semi-god – because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed.”
This article was first published at Business Civic Leadership Center / U.S. Chamber of Commerce.