As a respite from the turmoil of pandemic, social unrest, economic uncertainty, and a seemingly divided nation, I offer Nelson Mandela as an inspirational leadership role model, to learn the Power of Optimism over Despair.

I first became aware of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom during 1980’s business travel to South Africa. These were the years of global sanctions against South African apartheid. I was doing business on the international stage and my travels to South Africa required dual US Passports, one stamped valid for South Africa only, and a second for travel to other countries that banned anyone from entering who had a South African stamp in their passport.

Growing up in New York and Ohio, I thought racism was a black and white issue.  As my travels to South Africa continued through the 1990’s I learned about the many  complexities of “racism”, including so much more than black and white.  Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, including years of solitary confinement on Robben Island, where in January 2017 I had the personal opportunity to meet Mandel’s primary “white jailer”, Christo Brand. Brand’s book, Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend, is an incredible read for anyone interested to learn about the deeper realities of racism, and the power of human optimism and love to overcome hate and oppression.

Mandel’s rise to power was terrifying to many whites, who had been pushed from the more northern countries (former colonies) of southern Africa, until finally their backs were to the sea.  Certainly, Mandela would feel distain for his white jailers, and seek retribution for the white sins.  But fueled by the Power of Optimism over Despair, Mandela chose a different path, and in the words of none other than former President Barack Obama:

“Nelson Mandela was one of the great moral and political leaders of his time: an international hero whose lifelong dedication to the fight against racial oppression in South Africa won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of his country. After his triumphant release in 1990 from more than a quarter-century of imprisonment, Mandela was at the center of the most compelling and inspiring political drama in the world. As president of the African National Congress and head of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, he was instrumental in moving the nation toward multiracial government and majority rule. He is still revered everywhere as a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality.”  

Mandela was an inspirational leader who quite literally changed the world. I wonder on reflection, in the frame of today, if I could or should have done more, during my early days of business travel, using my dual passport to avoid sanctions, just doing my job.  I don’t know about that, but today I do know that Nelson Mandela was and remains an inspirational global leader, on par with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Mandela chose the Power of Optimism over Despair, and he changed the world.  If it was good for Mandela, what should you and we choose today?

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