Posted by: Nancy | February 23, 2009

Collaboration & leadership


I recently read a wonderful book, Playing the Enemy, Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, by John Carlin. It’s packaged as a sports book but it’s much more — contemporary history and a study of the  leadership skills of Nelson Mandela.

I’ll admit up front that Mandela has long been a hero of mine. I remember my early awareness of Mandela, when I was just a high school student — it was an early experience of outrage that this man had been behind bars for nearly my entire life. I loved the anthem to him and did my part to avoid doing business with apartheid-supporting business (I remember running out of gas once because I refused to stop at a Shell Oil gas station).

But what I didn’t really understand until I read this book is how Mandela used his personal communication and collaboration skills to knit the country together, one person at a time. And that his power as a communicator was such that each person he engaged also spread the message to an ever-widening circle of people as well. His strategy brought black support to the so-called “white man’s game” to gain the unity of the entire nation.

The book describes the power of rugby, which is practically a religion in South Africa. The game is emotionally charged, though, as South Africa’s team had been notoriously racist — an embodiment of white supremist rule — and  as a result had been banned from international play as a protest against apartheid. In 1995, the ban dropped after Mandela’s election to presidency, South Africa’s Springboks have a shot at the World Cup.

Where others saw a sporting event, Mandela saw the potential to unite a nation.  He collaborates, quietly and effectively, using his legendary charm until he has won over each member of the team. They are humbled by his attention, by his interest in them and he helps them see that they can represent something much greater. The team demonstrates their commitment to Mandela by learning the South African Black resistance anthem and singing it at the games. The black population turns rugby-mad, and soon all political factions drop their former biases and unite in support of the team of young men playing for the championship.

But the team plays for more than just a title — they play for the honor of their country, for its redemption, for courage. I finished the book in tears, and in awe of the leadership lesson.

UPDATE: Clint Eastwood has the rights to the book and the film version has begun, with Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the captain of Springboks rugby team. More details here.

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