Nelson Mandela’s ‘Magic’ Lessons for Collaboration – Part 2

In Part 1, I described some of the qualities that Nelson Mandela used to build bridges and develop working relationships. His capacity was sometimes called ‘magic’ because of the difficult circumstances that he navigated with dignity and transformed with forgiveness. Mandela’s power to influence and guide had two other sources to consider: Perspective and Vision.

These lessons are useful to leaders and organizational change agents who want to forge powerful collaboration for positive change.

Speak the Language of Your Adversary – The Power of Perspective

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Mandela was imprisoned in maximum security for 20 years and he used isolation as an opportunity to become a dedicated student of the Afrikaner language and history. With capacity to see the world through the eyes of his enemies, he developed a unique ability to forge a peaceful transition.

When perspective, motivation, or world-view, is completely different, it is even more important to be able to speak to those on the other side in a ‘dialect’ that they understand. The willingness to listen, learn, and see through the eyes of the other is often lacking in situations with a history of competition, mistrust, or conflict.

This journey toward peace begins by finding a common language. To really explore collaboration, it is essential to find the courage and the will to reach out instead of turning away, to open up and connect, instead of reacting against or closing down.

When people with differences approach communication as debate or argument, they do not yet have a common language that can reach the other’s heart and the heart of the matter. Contentious debate easily degrades into blaming or attacking the other side, defending oneself, and avoiding any share of responsibility for the issue. These actions preempt opportunities to learn something from the other, shift perspective, and find common ground that can be built upon.

In most disputes and situations where individuals and groups need to collaborate, the common language to bridge differences is the language of interests. We are interested in and care about what we believe that we need or what we value as important. These needs and values  motivate us to take action, advocate, and defend. This is Mandela’s UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE OF THE HEART that may be able to reach the other, shift perspective, build a degree of trust, and begin the journey toward possibility. Straight talk about needs and values balanced with a strong helping of mutual respect is the language of the heart.

Commit and Work Patiently – the Power of a Sustaining Vision

“During my lifetime….I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
(Mandela’s last words to the judge considering his death sentence)

In 1955, Mandela was one of the co-authors of the Freedom Charter, a visionary document at a time when the black and colored people of South Africa were subject to a system rooted in ideological hatred and the practice of extreme oppression. It boldly set forth a distant vision of “black and white together” and universal human rights.

In the face of remarkable adversity, this distant vision of change provided a positive orientation that focused his will and lifted his spirits to keep working toward a desired future.

For most of us, the unacceptable circumstances that challenge us to seek and build collaboration are not nearly so daunting. However, many who want to work together for positive change do not take the time to forge a powerful, compelling vision of ‘what might be’ to inspire the patient effort necessary to realize change. For example,

  • Working to improve practices and outcomes inside a bureaucratic organization that resists change and fails to honor and support its employees
  • Healing unresolved family issues inside a family-owned business that contribute to chaos, low morale, or mediocre performance in the organization.
  • Addressing unresolved conflict between members of a governing board, business partners, or professional colleagues who do not work well together.

In my work inside a wide variety of organizations, I observe how discouraged many become. It is common that people allow the weight of negative history and their perception of the degree of difficulty to ‘defeat’ them. There is no positive vision that focuses committed action and sustains motivation over time to effect the desired change. Leaders and potential change agents give up hope that things can change and resign themselves to the status quo. They may simply leave. Or they ‘retire in place’, remaining discouraged and unwilling to try to do anything beyond the basic requirements of their jobs until they can retire or move on to something better. .

We live in a society that values increasing speed and quick fixes. However many barriers to collaboration in organizational systems, between organizations and individuals, and in communities require patient effort to overcome. To be an agent of change, you need to be realistic about WHAT IS and remain firmly committed to WHAT COULD BE. A strong vision of what you want the collaboration to create and deliver can sustain whole-hearted effort over time.

Practice Tip #5

Separate WHAT, WHY, and HOW to speak the common language of Collaboration.

All paths to collaboration require an honest dialogue about importance. You have to find a way to being the conversation with the individuals and groups who might be able to collaborate. Once in conversation, it is imperative to identify the ISSUES that need to be addressed. Think of the ISSUES as the ‘WHAT’ we have to talk about. The range of issues could include communication processes, strategic priorities, governance agreements, decision-making authority, monetary investment, resource needs, etc.

The key to resolving ISSUES collaboratively is an understanding of the WHY that underlies the WHAT. WHY is the issue important? WHY are you and they interested in this question?

After you have some clarity about WHAT and WHY, you can work together to surface ideas of HOW to address the WHAT and satisfy (to some degree) the WHY. HOW is the place for creative exploration of possibilities.

Words of Wisdom

“Vision without action is merely a dream.  Action without vision just passes the time.  Vision with action can change the world.”
Joel Barker  Futurist

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
Lena Horne  Singer and Civil Rights Activist

Free Webinar Resources

The four cornerstone practices are presented and explained in my four-part webinar series sponsored by the Center for Nonprofit Excellence. Each segment is 45 minutes, posted on YouTube, and available here.