Friday, December 6, 2013

Knowing When - And How - To Act

Nelson Mandela was not a saint.

For those who knew him, including former Washington Post South Africa Bureau Chief Paul Taylor, Nelson Mandela was every bit the positive, quiet, thoughtful, introspective leader that the world knew.

But as Taylor noted Thursday on the occasion of Mr. Mandela's passing, Mr. Mandela, "…was also cunning, iron-willed, bull-headed, contemptuous — and more embittered than he let on." What Nelson Mandela knew, seemingly above all else, was how and when to deploy all his resources, of both kindness and strength, to achieve the political goals he wanted.

We've sometimes thought that the former President of South Africa, and prisoner for 27 years, could have held lessons for the U.S. Congress in how to use the tools of wise governing. After all, if Mandela could guide his own country past the end of apartheid without serious violence, while uniting two highly divergent groups of people? He might have actually been able to get Republicans in Congress to get off their butts and DO something.

No matter what you may have thought of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, there is no arguing that he was truly one of the most gifted world leaders ever. Even the satirical newspaper, The Onion, acknowledged this with their headline late Thursday, 'Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician In History To Be Missed.'

For all of the amazing moments in his life, the one thing that has always stuck with us about Mr. Mandela was his insistence that hatred - of his captors, of his political enemies, even of those who'd rather have seen him dead - was simply an ineffective tool for most situations in life.

Nelson's quotes about leadership reflected that. Even if just a few of our favorites are pulled together, they cut right to the core of what it means to be a great leader:
"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." 
"Great anger and violence can never build a nation." 
"A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it's lowest ones."
That last quote is one that we wish Congressional Republicans would keep in mind, as they run away from the mess they made of the Affordable Care Act, while ignoring the needs of millions of unemployed Americans in their budget discussions.

Still - we shouldn't scream, yell, and bang our fists on tables about the obstructionist Republicans. As Mandela also was quoted as saying, "Long speeches, the shaking of fists, the banging of tables and strongly worded resolutions out of touch with the objective conditions do not bring about mass action and can do a great deal of harm to the organization and the struggle we serve."

Having the wisdom to know when and how to act made Nelson Mandela a true leader for the ages.

We can only hope that today's leaders, both here and abroad - and the leaders of the future - will take some of that wisdom to heart.