One quality of leadership is knowing when to abandon a failed idea, move or attempt. Finally, it’s about knowing when to quit.
Time Magazine managing editor Richard Stengel is brilliant, a fine writer, too; his insights into world issues, events and ideas offer explanations that satisfy millions of readers worldwide.
In the 1990s, Stengel worked with Nelson Mandela for almost two years on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Two weeks ago, Stengel wrote a cover story for Time in which he outlined eight lessons of leadership taught by Mandela’s life both in prison and in State House.
"After all that time spent in his company, I felt a terrible sense of withdrawal when the book was done; it was like the sun going out of one’s life," writes Stengel. "We have seen each other occasionally over the years, but I wanted to make what might be a final visit and have my sons meet him one more time" because "Mandela is the closest thing the world has to a secular saint."
One of the lessons, number eight actually, is that quitting is leading, too. "Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make. In many ways, Mandela’s greatest legacy as President of South Africa is the way he chose to leave it. When he was elected in 1994, Mandela probably could have pressed to be President for life—and there were many who felt that in return for his years in prison, that was the least South Africa could do," says Stengel.
This, says Stengel, was possible. But Mandela chose to leave the presidency at a time he was the most popular person in South Africa and when both law and mood allowed him a second term.
"[Mandela] knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do," concludes Stengel.
During the years they worked on Long Walk to Freedom, Stengel often asked Mandela how the man who emerged from prison where he spent 27 years differed from the wilful young man who had entered it. Mandela hated this question, recalls Stengel. Finally, in exasperation one day, Mandela said, "I came out mature."
"There is nothing so rare—or so valuable—as a mature man," says Stengel. "Happy birthday, Madiba."
Happy birthday indeed. The month of July has been the Mandela month, honestly. He was all across the globe. His 90th birthday anniversary celebration in London was a global event. The British and all convinced Mandela who has chosen to spend life at his home in South Africa to travel to London for a party.
Time magazine, the world’s most circulated publication, dedicated all its four editions—US, Europe, Asia, South Pacific—to the story of Mandela and it was written by no less than the managing editor himself, a man in-charge of Time US, the world’s highest circulated magazine selling over four million every week.
This alone shows the place of Mandela on the world stage. And, as Stengel says, this is mainly because Mandela chose to leave the presidency when he could have remained in State House.
What has leaving office done to Mandela? It has made him a statesman and the world’s only greatest man living now, according to Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister for Britain. Leaving office makes people understand that we are human beings, after all. People tend to forget our failures and concentrate on the good things done while in office.
Now Mandela is seen as a saint, a man without fault yet he is the first to accept that he is not perfect. In a country that is witnessing crime and political uncertainty in the ruling ANC party, Mandela is regarded as the centre holding South Africa.
"You are the glue that holds us together as a nation," said ANC president Jacob Zuma in a speech at Mandela’s rural home at Qunu in the Eastern Cape province on Saturday. "You provide eternal hope in our people and the world that South Africa can only be a better place each day."
Zuma, reported Reuters, joined 500 guests, including President Thabo Mbeki and former Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda, in birthday celebrations for Mandela at Qunu on Saturday.
Mandela, says Zuma, is a symbol of unity between black and white South Africans. Some people say that although Mandela retired from active politics, he still provides a force of unity in a country where divisions between black and white, as well as rich and poor, are resurfacing as a largely black majority stays in poverty.
The unifying power of Mandela is both at party and national levels. His birthday party attracted people from all races in a country that skin colour still matters although not at official level. The ANC was united, too. President Mbeki and Zuma shared the joy of the anniversary, forgetting divisions that commentators say have rocked the ANC after Mbeki lost party leadership to Zuma.
A Reuters report quoted Financial Mail editor Barney Mthombothi as writing in a tribute to Mandela on Friday: "We’re approaching a future without his commanding presence with some trepidation.... We won’t see the likes of him again."
This is why everyone wants to associate with Mandela. US presidential candidate Barack Obama sent his usual poetic words to Mandela.
"Celebrations and simple words of admiration are not enough ... to honour a man who’s brought hope to a world often filled with despair; who’s brought so much love to a world so filled with hate and who’s shown us how much we can achieve when we have the courage to be our better selves," Obama said in a message.
"No, the way to truly honour you, Nelson Mandela, is to act each and every day in our own lives to do our part for our fellow human beings and to live up to the example you continue to set each and every day," he added.
These are gracious words, from a gracious US presidential hopeful, that marry well with Stengel’s observation on quitting, especially on a continent where some leaders regard the presidency as a life office from which death only can take them.