NUGGET: Great leaders have bi-focal sight: they simultaneously focus on today and the longer term future.
When we said goodbye to Nelson Mandela in 2013, I looked back on some of the lesser known insights from that amazing time of transformation in South Africa – a time that I participated in. I thought about many things, including an amazing and courageous decision that Mandela and his cohorts on Robben Island made early in their incarceration.
To set the stage, recall that Mandela was imprisoned in 1964 and was not released until February 11, 1990. The new South African Constitution was not ratified until 1996, with the first nationwide democratic elections in 1994.
During the early days of the ANC, Mandela and several other founding ANC leaders looked far into the future that became a reality in 1994. They knew the “New South Africa” would need competent black leaders. Yet, under the Bantu education system, township kids could not, by law, study math and science. It was an educational wasteland for over 70% of the population.
The ANC’s early leaders, including Govan Mbeki , the imprisoned father of Thabo Mbeki (the national president who followed Mandela) decided to send several next generation leaders to school overseas. This was not always popular with the young people who were sent out of the country (including Thabo Mbeki, who wanted to stay in the country and fight for freedom). But the first generation ANC leaders were adamant: there would be a pool of educated and politically savvy young people to lead the country after the end of Apartheid. Similarly, the ANC elders turned their Robben Island prison into an education center for others serving sentences with them.
These actions required a very long term vision that led to some damaged relationships between fathers and sons and aroused the ire of those who wanted a more militant approach. But Mandela’s and others’ ability to focus on both today and the longer-erm future is one reason for the relatively peaceful end of apartheid and the launch of South Africa into the global community.
This lesson is expanded in my story about a leader who almost failed the leadership test, The Shadow Side of Power: Lessons for Leaders.