I, along with the rest of the world, have been reflecting quite a bit on Nelson Mandela’s life and achievements. He inspired millions during his lifetime, and will go on to inspire generations to come. We will forever be humbled by a man who could endure so much suffering and adversity, and yet despite it all, go on to change so many minds, and open so many hearts.
He has become a lightning rod for the concept of resilience, the innate powers in us to not only endure but persist in the face of hardship and adversity. And while most of us won’t face close to the challenges that Mandela himself faced and endured, we all face struggles and stressors of our own, some minor and some major, all of which call into question our own powers to cope. How is it that a man can emerge from 27 years of imprisonment so able to continue to effect change, and to do so with love and forgiveness in his heart?
I’m particularly intrigued by the perfect portrait of key traits of resilience that Mandela’s actions and life exemplify. In my work helping people develop the skills they need to become more resilient to the stressors and pressures of their lives there a several key traits that consistently move the needle in our ability to bear up under stress in a sustainable way and Nelson Mandela mastered them all:
Emotion Regulation. Mandela’s ability to keep his emotions under his control no doubt served him throughout his life. Not that he didn’t have emotions or just ignored them; he was human, after all. But he had a stunning “absence of rancor” as Bill Keller described it in the NY Times. If he had let his emotions fester and spoil for all those years in prison, they would have likely gotten the best of him—and he would have left Robben Island a bitter, angry man. Which is not the Nelson Mandela we knew and loved.
Empathy. Understanding what makes other people tick, and most importantly, what they need, is critical—because it’s what connects us with others. When you look at a photo of Mandela, you see that ability to feel for others, because he himself had suffered—defeat, abandonment, loss, injustice. He bore a world of pain on his shoulders—joyfully and willingly—and he in turn won the empathy and support of millions.
Empathy also means knowing what people need to heal. And for Mandela, it wasn’t more punishment and vengeance. Even in the face of tremendous violence. In her piece on Mandela here on Forbes, Susan Adams notes one of Mandela’s huge achievements: establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where victims and perpetrators of racial violence could tell their stories. “Though controversial,” she writes, “the process was also hailed as a triumph of mercy and a meaningful step toward healing the country’s deepest wounds.”
Connection. His willingness to reach out to and connect with others, to support and love even those who hated and feared him, set him apart. Consider the close relationship Mandela had with his South African jailer, Christo Brand, a man who by any other definition would have been his enemy. But in fact the two reportedly developed a close friendship, Mandela turning this would-be enemy into an ally. Years later, when Mandela was president, and Brand was still a civil servant, he singled him out for recognition and welcomed him with open arms.
Self-Efficacy. First and foremost we have to believe in ourselves and our powers to get things done, which is so different than the power to trumpet on our own behalf. Nelson’s singular focus on his mission, paired with his soul-deep commitment to what he believed in most, made him capable of enduring through incredible strife.
Authenticity. Beyond his powerful connection with people, Mandela was driven always by ideals that he was willing to die for. That perhaps made him the most resilient of all. He was, in that sense, the very embodiment of authentic. I wrote recently about how your defining moments are key to rising above stress—because rather than play whack-a-mole with the small stuff, you gain momentum and focus from being aligned with your core values. There’s no question that Mandela did that, through and through.
(Read more about the 3 ways leaders cultivate and maintain authenticity.)
Without a belief or value you would do anything for, you risk finding yourself at sea, adrift in a life without meaning, and prey to any number of stressors. And while Mandela swam through treacherous, shark-ridden waters, many times against the tide, he knew where he was headed. And he never stopped swimming.