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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

The Greatest Leader Of Our Lifetime

Late this evening Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. He was the greatest leader of our lifetime. His Long Walk to Freedom included 27 years in prison on Robben Island, hard labor, and cruel treatment for a political crime he did not commit.

Yet he emerged from prison on February 11, 1990, unbowed and unbroken, a proud man determined to save his nation from the civil war that had long been anticipated. His goal was to restore harmony between blacks, whites, colored and Indian.

That evening in Cape Town, in his first public appearance in 27 years, he began by saying:

I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.
Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today.
I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.

He concluded by telling the assembled masses:

It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured.
We call upon our white combatants to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa.
Our march to freedom is irreversible.
We must not allow fear to stand in our way.
Universal suffrage in a non-racial, democratic South Africa
Is the only way to peace and racial harmony.
It is an idea for which I am prepared to live for and fight for.
If needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela indeed was able to achieve his dream and was elected president of the democratic South Africa, stepping down after five years.

How was this man, himself the victim of so much injustice, able to forgive his captors and work tirelessly for harmony between all the people of South Africa? He rose above his feelings of anger to recognize his greater calling to become the man of peace who could unite all his country’s people and put his country ahead of himself, his race, or his party.

For his vision, his passion for his cause, his compassion for his fellow people, and his courage to put his life on the line to achieve his goal, Nelson Mandela is the greatest leader of our lifetime. His life stands as a symbol of human capacity to set aside differences, ancient hatreds, and historic injustice to achieve peace and harmony.

On a personal note, although I have been to South Africa many times, I met Nelson Mandela only once, when he was in Minneapolis on a 2001 trip to raise funds for a museum at Robben Island.  Penny and I had fifteen minutes alone with him to hear his stories from his time in prison and his vision for the future of South Africa. He was so inspired about developing a new generation of leaders in South Africa and throughout the continent of Africa that we decided to fund the leadership development program he had created from this purpose. In an unrelated incident, in early 1997 when our son Jon – then a junior at Amherst College – decided to spend a semester in Soweto working as an orderly at Baraguawanth Hospital, he had trouble clearing customs as he did not have a work permit. A call from Winnie Mandela, at the time Nelson’s wife, to the customs inspectors enabled him to clear customs and have a transformational experience that semester.