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The life and legacy of Nelson Mandela: 10 lessons for Talent Managers

On 5 December 2013 South Africa and the world lost one of the greatest leaders of mankind, Nelson Mandela.   It is now three years later, and the question is whether the world is a better place today.  We mourned his passing, but we continue to celebrate his legacy as we are reminded of his legacy this month.  Throughout South Africa and the rest of the world, people will honour his legacy by doing good deeds for their fellow human beings.   Recognised globally as an icon, no other South African has had more impact on so many people throughout the world than Nelson Mandela. He is the best example of true moral leadership in the most difficult of times. We have to thank Tata Madiba for one of the most successful political transitions the world has ever seen. His biggest achievement was the eradication of apartheid, thereby helping the country to turn around from an oppressive regime to a fully-fledged modern democracy.

Perhaps it is not a co-incidence that one of South Africa’s top Human Resource (HR) professionals, Professor Shirley Zinn launched her book “Swimming Upstream” last year.  The book covers major lessons in life as she grew up in the Cape Flats during some of the worst years of our apartheid past.  Like Mandela, Shirley refused to accept life as a victim.  She prioritised education and career growth as two key aspects for achieving success in life and business, despite all the odds against her.  It is therefore very appropriate for Shirley to dedicate a full chapter of her book to South Africa today.  In that chapter she refers continuously to Mandela’s life and contribution to South Africa.  She asserts: “Having experienced Mandela’s leadership, we cannot slip back into anything less.”

Today I want to reflect on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.  Specifically, I want to internalise these lessons in my own life, not only at home, but also at work.  As the leader of the liberation struggle and later as first democratic president of South Africa, Mandela’s life provides us with a powerful legacy – and some profound lessons for talent managers.

  1. Humanity: Nelson Mandela epitomises what humanity is all about – the continuous pursuit of what humanity stands for – a world where human dignity is respected and valued. As talent management professionals we are champions for humanity in the workplace.  Mandela reminded us: “Our definition of the freedom of the individual must be instructed by the fundamental objective to restore the human dignity of each and every South African.”
  2. Diversity: No other leader taught us more about diversity than Nelson Mandela, his whole life was about creating and building respect for diversity, not only at a political level, but also in all spheres of society, including the workplace.   The biggest irony of Mandela’s legacy is that while he achieved freedom for blacks, he also realised freedom for whites – freeing them too from apartheid and the belief of white supremacy that dominated South Africa for many decades.  He also warned against tribalism and xenophobia, two challenges that still need to be addressed in South Africa.  Talent managers play a fundamental role in creating diverse workplaces, and more focussed work still needs to be done to attain true inclusive workplaces.
  3. Accountability: Mandela was a strong believer in accountability in both the private and public sectors.  In particular, leaders should be held accountable.  He said: “If you want to take an action and you are convinced that this is a correct action, you do so and confront that situation.”   Talent managers should be much stronger in striving towards accepting accountability for their talent management work, and not blame line managers and other stakeholders when things go wrong or when talent gaps are perpetuated.
  4. Adaptability: Mandela’s life is a wonderful example of adaptability. As he asserted: “Human beings have got the ability to adjust to anything.”   He learned that throughout his life, and ultimately adapted from revolutionary to prisoner to politician to president. Talent managers  should adapt to changing circumstances, and as business partners ensure that talent management strategy and services are continuously adapted to the needs of organisations and the realities of the changing environment.
  5. Change: Mandela said that while it is difficult to change society, it is even more difficult to change yourself.  While sticking to our values and principles as talent management professionals, we need to build, develop and change ourselves every day if we want to become better at what we do.
  6. Conflict: The greatest part of Mandela’s life was about dealing with conflict. He learnt and grew as an individual through these tough experiences, and was prepared to die for his convictions.  Mandela expressed his view on conflict as follows: “One of the most important lessons I learnt in my life of struggle for freedom and peace is that in any conflict there comes a point when neither side can claim to be right and the other wrong, no matter how much that might have been the case at the start of a conflict.”  HR, Talent Management and Employment Relations professionals specifically are facilitators of conflict resolution in the workplace, and their skills in dealing with conflict situations are of paramount importance.
  7. Integrity: In a country still plagued by fraud and corruption, Mandela’s example reminds us of the importance of integrity.  He valued integrity throughout his life.  Referring to corruption, he labelled South Africa as a “sick society.”  Talent management professionals should be people of integrity and build ethical organisational cultures to create more ethical organisations and ultimately an ethical society.
  8. Relationships: Life is about relationships at the individual and collective level.  As a strong supporter of worker rights, he believed in good relationships between employers and employees. Likewise, he established good relationships with the business community.  Talent managers are key builders of relationships in the workplace and broader society.
  9. Opportunity: Mandela said: “You pass through this world once and opportunities you miss will never be available to you again.”  Every day talent managers are faced with many opportunities of making a difference, we must seize these chances of having impact.
  10. Leadership: Mandela’s greatest legacy was his leadership during moments of suffering and opportunity. He excelled as a leader in the most challenging times.  As talent managers we have to show greater leadership in leading our talent strategies and coaching managers in people skills to leverage the talents of their teams.
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