28 Years Ago Today
On this day in 1990, Nelson Rollhlahla Mandela walked out of prison, after 27 years.
As a well-known leader in the early days of the anti-apartheid contingency in South Africa, Mandela's name had become near myth and legend to non-white South Africans, who made up the majority of the nation's population. When he was released, Mandela became a symbol of hope that injustice would end and freedom would prevail. The apartheid regime was crumbling, and this frail looking 71-year old man would be the person to lead a nation to rebuild.
However, the speech Mandela gave on the day he was released is enlightening. (It is available to read in full.) He isn't grandstanding. He's not trying to recreate "I have a dream" rhetoric. The thin, bespectacled ex-inmate is calling for collaboration and cooperation. He's calling for leadership that works to end oppression and makes is quite clear that this kind of result requires unity. Black and white.
There is something impressive about the way post-prison Mandela led. There was a selflessness about him. He sought shared leadership. His tone is not one of self-promotion. He is promoting the group. The community. The people.
He led from the back.
In Richard Stengal's TIME article from 2008, Mandela reminisced about herding cattle as a boy. "You can only lead them from behind." His point is clear. And this is the sort of leadership he demonstrated.
There are moments when leadership requires someone to step up front and take charge. Mandela eventually did so. Even after his presidency, he used his position and influence to speak out against other injustices in Africa and around the globe.
But today - on the 28th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's prison release - it seems significant to remember that the fresh start of his post-prison leadership journey was not the picture of a president want-to-be, striving for a position of power or prestige.
He was a man calling for collaboration behind an ideal on that day. Day-to-day leadership is about empowering others, not grabbing power.
This seems very Jesus-like.
I find the Mandela story encouraging. It's ultimately how we bring deep change to our lives, our community, our nation, and our world.