Nelson Mandela Led from the Back of the Room

The following includes an excerpt from Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life by Patti Johnson. (Release May 2014)

MandelaNelson Mandela was a very different kind of leader. He led through principles and understanding rather than power and force. He forgave his former oppressors when it seemed impossible to do so. He led by example. Mandela willingly shared his leadership with others as he knew that shared commitment was essential in ending apartheid.

His example of selfless and shared leadership wasn’t all about him. He relied on his strength of character and vision and sharing it with others. He was comfortable leading from the back of the room. We can learn from his example.

Be willing to let others lead the experiment or test the new idea. Leaders often believe that having all of the answers is a key ingredient for respect and success. And, as a business community and society, we regularly reinforce that belief by our admiration of the all-knowing and the individualist. Yet we know that inviting others to be part of starting and creating a change is essential for innovation and a sustainable wave.

Leaders must be a willing to step to the sidelines and let others be visible, make important decisions, and be in the front of the room. These actions promote shared leadership and the emphasis on ‘what’s in it for us’, not just ‘what’s in it for me’.

One of the most impressive executives I worked for was masterful at being in charge when needed, but also being part of the team so that others could lead too. He encouraged those with great ideas to share and test them and gave them some limited funding or support. These simple acts showed how much he valued new ideas and the input of others.

I’m not recommending an abdication of leadership, as there are many situations that call for a leader to stand in front and take charge. Yet, if your goal is to encourage broad participation and incorporate new ideas, you have to share the stage. And if you work in a community effort, this is absolutely essential, as volunteers have complete choice in how they spend their time.

We also know that open participation supports engagement and commitment, both essential ingredients in building a community around your wave. So, there are many benefits. And this philosophy has been a key principle of revered leaders, such as Nelson Mandela.

Richard Stengel, editor of Time magazine, spent years interviewing Nelson Mandela and collaborated with him on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In an interview with Voice of America, Stengel said, “Lead from the front is the more conventional kind of leading that we know—getting up on the podium and giving a speech or saying follow me. But leading from the back is a different idea.”

Nelson Mandela embodied this idea of leading from behind. He provided the example and the values and let others lead.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults and the author of Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life to be released in May 2014. You can follow her @pattibjohnson.