NUGGET : In times of change and complexity it is natural to retreat to an us/them stance. But, as Mandela’s life shows us, it’s often the opposite we need: a more inclusive view of people and ideas.


In times of change, we are tempted to draw hard boundaries to protect what is “me” (the individual) or “us” (my group) from what is “the other(s).” Given today’s pace of change and complexity, and how we are thrown together in a global melting pot, it is easy to see why there is so much “us/them” conflict. And because it is so juicy for the media, it gets amplified and takes on battle proportions, whether in one-one relationships (People Magazine), government (Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress), society (Middle East), in business (marketing vs. engineering) or in business vs. society (Wall Street vs. Main Street). Global communications and technology, and the economic imperative to cooperate are pressuring us to soften we/they boundaries, however, and to broaden the playing field for relationships and ideas. And that’s a good thing, for we all affect each other’s ability to survive and thrive as we continue to shape a new era of profound connection.

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Opening up to differences is not easy, though, even in more stable times. This may be one reason for our fascination with Nelson Mandela. Somehow, he managed to both hold ground for his values and his race, while also being open to new ideas and magnanimous with people who created and enforced apartheid. Everybody knows about his putting on the Springbok rugby jersey before he presented South Africa’s new world champions with their trophy in 1995. The Springboks and rugby teams in general were considered “white” teams – teams of the oppressor, so Mandela in a Springbok shirt was a sign of a new order.

His respect for people who were different was not the only form of inclusion that Mandela modeled. One lesser-known fact is his openness to intellectual challenge – to new ideas. Here’s one of many examples: In the early 90’s, this communist sympathizer went to Europe and was exposed to a broad array of economic ideas. After many conversations and debates with world economic leaders about the best way forward for South Africa, Mandela became an advocate for a more free market approach. He rose above ideology, looked objectively at the realities of the evolving and globalizing economic and social milieu, explored options, and changed his mind.

Even though many of us would have empathized with a more retribution-oriented Mandela, his inclusive actions raise an important existential question: why is it so difficult to move beyond demonizing “others” to not only accept people who are different from us, but also to step into their shoes and world? This is a question to ask whenever we meet and feel resistant to or even hostile towards ideas and people who are different from us, in daily life, in the workplace, in the world at large.

An inclusive approach to diversity is not a trivial phenomenon in these turbulent times. Many forces are throwing us together into a global and local melting pot. We can try to create enclaves of the “just like us” people and ideas in society or in our workplaces. This kind of self-imposed isolation can create temporary security and it also may help clarify and evolve deeper values. But blind, reactive, and defensive isolation, demonization of others, and hostility often just put a temporary lid on the boiling pot of change — delaying the inevitable and increasing the chances of a more violent upheaval in the future.

The automatic response to a confusion of voices and ideas is often to “batten down the hatches.” We need to be more open and courageous than that. There are many times, of course, when we must take a stand. But most of us are pretty good at that. Where we need to stretch and grow is toward more openness and appreciation for diversity. Mandela’s larger than life presence is a call to action on that account.

In times of change and complexity it is natural to retreat to an us/them stance. But, as Mandela’s life shows us, it’s often the opposite we need: a more inclusive view of people and ideas.


For more on this topic, see the third circle in The Shadow Side of Power: Lessons for Leaders

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