“Respect For The Humanity Of The Adversary”

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing, the world is saying good bye to one of the greatest leaders of our time – indeed, of all time. Over the last week, so much has been said about his character, his brilliance, his humility and his impact as a leader. I find myself with nothing to add to the analysis. Rather, I think the most useful thing I can do is to put myself on the hook of a difficult question: “How can I help to carry forward Nelson Mandela’s legacy?”

It’s a ludicrous question, really. Mandela (like other transformative leaders) provides an exemplar of what is possible. But this example is so remarkable as to seem unattainable. “Sure, but that was Mandela. What does his phenomenal quality of heart and character have to do with me, who’s just slogging away in my small corner of the world?”

It seems to me that one of the ways to honor Mr. Mandela’s legacy is not to learn to be like him (good luck with that), but to learn from him and to translate his example into our own context and scale. The invitation is to take even an iota of what he showed us is possible, and carry that forward in our own way.

The way to answer that invitation, I think, is to chunk his example down to mortal-sized pieces, and apply it to the mundane but meaningful interactions in which most of us engage.

The aspect of Mr. Mandela that has captivated my own imagination is his respect for the humanity of the adversary. Nelson Mandela stands tall in our collective view in part because of his extraordinary ability to maintain a deep respect – not just for the kind of run-of-the-mill adversaries that most of deal with, but for people who hated him, tortured him, even wished him dead. I have no idea how he managed that; it just boggles my mind and stymies my heart. And yet, to quote James Joseph, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, “If Mandela could do that, maybe I can too.”

I don’t know yet where this exploration will take me. I know that my efforts will look laughably humble and mundane. But the greatest way I can honor President Mandela is not with my admiration or adulation, but rather with my action – holding myself accountable to step in a fuller way into some aspect of what he’s taught me is possible.

What about you?

What was it about Nelson Mandela that touched or inspired you most?

In what way is that inspiration an invitation to you to keep Mr. Mandela’s light shining?

How will you put that into action in your world, at your scale, in your way?