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A South African man paints a portrait of Nelson Mandela at a memorial outside the late South African president's home in Houghton Estate, a suburb of Johannesburg.

Pearce

Mandela's leadership

Kellogg's Nicholas Pearce discusses the leader's legacy after a visit to Africa

By Paul Dailing

12/23/2013 - Clinical Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations Nicholas Pearce was four days away from a trip to Africa when he got a phone call telling him Nelson Mandela had died.

Pearce had already been scheduled at events for prospective Kellogg students in Kenya, South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria. He soon found himself watching a miles-long line of traffic outside Mandela’s visitation in Pretoria.

“We got there around 8 a.m. and there were people who had been in line as early as 4,” Pearce said. “We were told at the time that 50,000 people were in line.”

Mandela, who served 27 years in prison for fighting South Africa’s Apartheid segregation policies to later become the country’s first black president, is a good example for leaders, Pearce said.

“This man was not simply a politician for the people of South Africa,” Pearce said. “He was not just a president for them. He was a national father.”

Leader emergence

“He went into prison a high-potential, rising-star lawyer. He was on the front end of his career arc and then spent 27 of his prime years in prison. Then Mandela comes out on the other side of this to lead a nation in his seventies. That’s not a typical career path.

“When you think about these popular questions about whether leaders are born or made, how leaders step up, or whether there is a prototype or archetype of what leadership should look like, Mandela breaks the mold. He comes into the highest level of national leadership in a way that no one could have sketched out.

“Mandela had a life sentence – imprisonment was not a strategic career path to the presidency by any stretch of the imagination. His example proves that leadership can indeed emerge from unlikely places.”

Social capital

“Many people understand leadership to be predicated upon having formal authority, having a prestigious title, or holding a senior management position in an organization. It is true that there is a fair amount of power and influence that one can wield given their authority in the organizational hierarchy.

“But for me, leadership is far more about the influence that one exerts and the relationships one builds. Leadership is about being able to motivate, integrate, and enable a collection of individuals toward realizing a common aspiration.

“It’s all about social capital. When we look in our organizations there are many people who hold big titles but fail to cultivate social capital with the people they lead. Leaders who lack social capital often lack the influence they need to accomplish great things through others.”

A different leadership model

“There are some people who approach leadership with a very transactional perspective where the people who are following them are pawns to be played on the chessboard of organizational life to accomplish the ends that the leader desires. They lead via command and control, by forcing compliance.

“Alternatively, a model that is more social-capital rich says ‘Let me spend time to understand who you are, how I can serve you, and what I can do for you so that we can move forward together.’ We call this leadership by commitment.

“This does not happen in a quid pro quo kind of way – certainly not. It is the cultivation of a relationship – it’s more that ‘I am interested in your development. I am interested in your well-being. And with that predicating our relationship, now you will produce greater results with much more heart, with much more motivation, and with much more satisfaction than if you are just afraid of me wielding a big stick.'"

Further reading:

The Leadership Lessons of Nelson Mandela