Three Leadership Lessons Inspired by Long Walk to Freedom

How do we apply the kind of strength and courage that we know is inside us, and lead other people to victory, when it’s not clear at all who or what the enemy is?

I watched “Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom” recently (great film and book) and thought about Mr Mandela’s early decision to stop being a lawyer, join the ANC and take the fight to the enemy.

For some men, including me, fighting against something is a very energising and satisfying thing to throw yourself into. But for most of us, not living under oppressive regimes and in a time of peace – who is the enemy?

What do you fight against? Who do you resist with the kind of positive intention that Mr Mandela found? How do you gather and lead other people in that kind of selfless resistance when things aren’t so ‘black and white’? How do we apply our full strengths in the workplace?

I think it begins with three relatively small steps, which together are a real leadership tipping-point:

1. What do we stand for?
It’s not enough to resist for the sake of resisting. Find what it is that you believe is worth defending or fighting for. It might be a belief in the way that things should be done or a situation that needs correcting. These are perfectly valid things to tackle in the workplace or outside it.

2. Define the battleground
We may not live under something as malign as the apartheid regime, but injustice, wasted opportunities and distress are around us, if we choose to look. Your battleground need not be a whole nation, but we do need strong people to raise their gaze and see where the fight is.

3. Be like a magnet: Resistance + Attraction
I loved how Mr Mandela used his charm and personality to draw people to him, and it was this charisma that the ANC knew they needed. He made the decision to join an armed resistance and to fight against the regime. But it was his force of attraction that gave the movement its strength and which ultimately enabled him to win over guards at Robin Island and the ruling National Party.

where is your leadership absent?

The Truant Shadow

Why some men are absent from their leadership at work and in families – and what to do about it

Sometimes we do and say stuff that comes out wrong – but we do it with good intentions. These behaviours are a kind of distortion of our true strengths, and one of the distortions that you might notice around you, is the Truant.

The Truant is a distortion of a someone’s strengths in being a nourishing and responsible leader who looks after the growth potential in the people and things around him. What happens is that our fear and shame gets in the way of being able to use our real strengths to lead and take care of people.

The Truant is what happens when we have a flight or freeze response to that fear and shame. We’re afraid of not being able to live up to our potential, of falling short of what people need or expect from us. And we’re ashamed that we’ve already not been ‘good enough’ in some way. Overloaded by the pressure of that fear and shame, we run or hide.

You’ll see the Truant response often in men when it comes to fatherhood. In the West, half of all children will spend time in a fatherless home. And similar issues arise at work, where men may absent themselves from taking long-term responsibility, or be dismissive of the day-to-day drudge work that makes organisations secure and prosperous.

The first step in helping men who have been Truant in some way, and are ready to return, is to stop being absent from the fear and the shame. After all, that’s what we’re really running from or frozen into inaction by. The good news is that fear and shame won’t destroy us, even if it feels like they might.

Here’s some questions that will turn people face-about to the hard issues:

  • What responsibilities have you ducked?
  • What have you failed to provide for?
  • Which people have you let down?
  • What has been the impact on other people of your ‘absence’?
  • What does the above say about you as a man?

My advice is to write down the answers to these questions often enough to be able to face the truth and to just ‘be with’ them for as much as they can, no matter how tough or bad it feels. Only then are people ready to come out the other side.

And remember, to some extent, everybody shares these experiences – it’s part of being human. You are not your behaviour and your behaviour can change.

Re-Thinking Male Leadership

Masculinity; it’s always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Helping my son with his homework this weekend, we found the Amnesty International motto:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

[Click here for more on Amnesty and the source of that motto]

That motto says something about how I’d like to approach my work with men.

You could talk about how men are often outperformed by women in leadership studies or in educational achievement; or about how nearly 95% of the prison population in the UK is male (making crime very much a ‘male issue’) or how men in some demographics are up to four times more likely to take their own lives than women; or the incidence of bullying at work. And there are plenty of other ‘negative’ examples.
It is definitely time to start having more open discussion of issues like these, and to encourage more men to be actively involved in doing so. But for me the darkness is only a part of the picture – and a potentially dis-empowering one at that.

If you look for them, there are examples of men leading with very positive impact in all kinds of areas – at work, in large and small commercial businesses, in the charitable sector and in the public sector. Men who have had to make difficult choices (perhaps unconsciously) to behave in ways that actually go against some expectations about what it means to do things “…like a man” but which are genuinely masculine. That’s where the answers are and where the inspiration is for the rest of us.

I think we need to know where the darkness is – and then light a candle to show that there is more to it than that.

To Be is To Do

“To be seen you must make yourself visible; To be valuable you must do something of value…”

I think this is a quote from somewhere? I’ve been reading and re-reading it for ages without knowing where I first found it; and Google doesn’t seem to know either.

To be seen you must make yourself visible;

To be valuable you must do something of value;

To be important you must do something important;

To be remembered you must do something memorable;

To be wanted you must create something people want;

To leave a legacy for those you love, you must create one.

I like it!

There’s also this old graffiti joke:

“To be is to do”—Socrates.
“To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.

Be a Team Player

When he was 11, my son played football for his local team.

They were still at that stage where it feels better to make a lone (and often forlorn) dash in the hope of scoring a glory-goal, than to pass the ball and let someone else grab the shot.
Knowing that playing as a team is what wins games seems to be something that comes with emotional maturity.

Generally, men are really good team players and I suspect that being part of a great team is something that we want in a deep, heartfelt way.

Sometimes though, men have a tendency to forget the rest of the team and go chasing-off on their own. They forget to ask for help. They forget that they’re not in it alone. Their intentions are often sound – these actions mostly seem to come from a sense of responsibility, not irresponsibility. Perhaps what gets in the way is that boyhood dream of being the daring centre-forward who single-handedly saves the match?