14. March 2013
Bradley Googins
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Leading Social Change: Lessons from Nelson Mandela

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: 

  • Think Big.  GIBS dean Nick Binedell doesn’t think of South Africa and its neighbors in the diminishing language of “emerging markets.”  He uses the term “dynamic markets” to capture the energy, scale, and vitality of commerce in the region.  We saw this dynamism in downtown Joburg’s fashion district where over 100 fashion-related businesses churn out haute-couture designs that compete with rivals in Paris, Milan, and New York and deliver ready-to-wear fashion with an African flair.  We talked with students studying fashion design, unemployed tailors and seamstresses at work again, fashion models in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and the likes of Richard Branson, promoting Joburg fashion along with Virgin flights from London.

    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. 

  • Join Hands.  Almost 1.7 million people live in the township of Soweto in Joburg.  When we were here decades ago, it was a hell-hole ravaged by apartheid (save for a middle-class area where Bishop Tutu resides).  Life is still rough here for unemployed locals and immigrants from Zaire flooding in, but very much improved in terms of housing, sanitation, and security thanks to a variety of public-private partnerships. You see the fruits of multisector cooperation at the cutting-edge Soweto performing arts theater, at the revitalized World Cup soccer stadium, and in the Orlando Ekhaya development, where Soweto's power station and twin cooling towers are being redeveloped into a retail and entertainment center, along with 700 housing units.

    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.”

  • Persevere.  “The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.”This Mandela message we heard again and again from social entrepreneurs in Alexandra township. Picking themselves up after a series of setbacks, they are successfully operating a solar-powered internet cafe, a community-based radio station, and an orphanage for children suffering from HIV-AIDS.  Another ten leaders from NGOs came to the GIBS campus to share points-of-view with the academicians.

    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. 

  • Make the impossible possible.  In the days of apartheid, Mandela was arrested, tried, and convicted of high treason by the state and sentenced to life in prison without parole.  He spent twenty-threes in prison, often solitary confinement, barely able to see the sun and seemingly without hope of justice.  Yet he was freed, became President of South African, and launched the truth and reconciliation process where 20,000 South Africans shared their pain and loss and hundreds, black and white, acknowledged their guilt.

    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.”

  • Be the Change.  In an earlier column, we wrote about Gandhi’sinfluence on social action in India and his advice to “be he change” you seek in the world.  Gandhi was a “prisoner of conscience” jailed in Johannesburg in 1908.  When released, because of protests in the Indian community in South Africa, he returned to his homeland but his legacy lived on Mandela’s embrace of satyagraha or non-violent resistance.

    “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.

Academy of Management Africa Conference - Phil Mirvis
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