I recently returned from South Africa where I had one of the most amazing weeks of my life. I was invited to speak in South Africa by the Mandela Rhodes Foundation for Leadership, which is an organization that was created a decade ago by Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, in concert with the Rhodes Foundation (think Rhodes Scholars) to develop up and coming leaders for the African continent. This foundation finds the best and brightest minds from all over Africa, and has created a development program for them to train them in the most advanced and current skills of leadership available. Many of the young people being trained are Rhodes Scholars, all are working on their Phd’s, and collectively they represent the hope of Africa and the desire to create freedom through empowerment, equality and economic success.
I not only got to visit with the leaders of Mandela’s Foundation, but I was also invited to his personal residence and got to spend time with his staff and see the place where he has lived and worked for many years. And I was asked to lead a training workshop to the Mandela Rhodes scholars on the science and power of imagination. I spent a day with them sharing the work on imagination I have been doing over the past 15 years. It was a magical day, filled with insightful questions, curious explorations, and engaging dialogue. But what really caught me off guard was the level of happiness, enthusiasm, and acceptance of different ideas that each of these scholars brought to the table. Their love of learning, human experience, diversity, and community far exceeded anything that I have experienced working with executives, students and some of the best minds in North America over the last decade. And their acceptance, compassion and integration of a white culture that subjugated, marginalized and brutalized them for decades was an astounding display of the best of our human qualities.
It is clear where it came from. After spending over 25 years in a horrific prison, where he was often beaten, tortured, and humiliated, Nelson Mandela emerged from the depths of despicable treatment and taught a nation and the world, that freedom is not only removing the shackles placed upon us by governments, or others intent on our disengagement from power, but freedom is more importantly an internal journey, that requires us to abandon the constraints of vengeance, retaliation, a lack of forgiveness, and pain. It asks us to rise above the frailties of human experience and behavior to find reconciliation and promote unity and healing with all people. As Nelson Mandela himself stated, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Mandela himself demonstrated that the long walk to freedom first requires courage. Courage to respond with love and compassion to those who would hurt us and try to deprive us of equal rights. Courage to choose unity and equality even when that equality and unity will be given to those that otherwise would seek our demise. Courage to liberate, as Mandela once stated, “not only the oppressed, but also the oppressor.” Many of us believe there is much that needs to be done, and much that we can do, to help the people of Africa and the problems they are facing. I believe that is true, and I too am acting in the best way I know how to make a contribution to the people of Africa in a meaningful way. But we also have our own long walk to freedom to take, both individually and collectively as a country and culture.
We talk a lot about freedom in this country, and yet so much discrimination in our laws and in our behaviors still exists towards racial minorities, religious minorities, and good, loving people who are still often beaten, ridiculed, bullied and discriminated against simply because they choose to love someone of the same sex. The question I think Nelson Mandela would ask us, if he could, is, what are we doing as a country to create fairness and equality for all people, not just the ones who side with our position in the world? How are we seeking to forgive and find reconciliation with those that have hurt our nation? How are we working to create equality, compassion and justice for gay people in this country even though we may disagree with their choice of who to love?
On a personal basis, each of us can usually identify someone in our lives that has caused us harm, or hurt us in some physical, emotional or spiritual way. How are you seeking reconciliation, forgiveness and compassion for that person? How can you liberate them from the oppression they have caused you? For as Mandela once taught the world, “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of all others.” That admonition includes these people – the ones that for each of us, are most difficult to love.
I feel honored that the Mandela Rhodes Foundation wants me back again next year to lead another training program for their future leaders on the science and power of imagination. Yet, I am acutely aware that the next time I return, there will be much more I can learn about the long walk to freedom, and the values of unity, compassion, forgiveness and love that are being exemplified for us by the people of South Africa and the African continent. And rather than look at them as people who need my help, I will recognize myself as someone who needs their help.