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December 5, 2013 8:35 pm

Nelson Mandela: The Anatomy of a Great Leader

avatar by Pesach Efune

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Nelson Mandela in Brazil, 1998. Photo: wiki commons.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote this about leadership:

Leaders are also human and they make mistakes that have nothing to do with leadership and everything to do with human weakness and temptation. The sexual conduct of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton was less than perfect. Does this affect our judgment of them as leaders or not? Judaism suggests it should.

If Rabbi Sacks is correct, can there be any ‘leader’ to whom we should look up to and admire and should attempt to emulate? I think the answer is yes, but is contingent upon their style of leadership.

What exactly was it about Nelson Mandela that made him a great leader, a true statesman and inspiration for so many?

Was it his determination and tenacity, or was it his charisma and humility? Whilst I am sure it was a combination of all the above; for me however it was his ability to forgive.

Nelson Mandela had been in prison for twenty seven years and so had every reason to be angry, bear a grudge and take revenge upon the white regime that treated him and thousands of others so brutally. And yet in his inaugural speech as president of South Africa in May 1994, this is what he said:

The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.

These few words, perhaps more than any others in his speech helped prevent South Africa from turning into a cauldron of hate, violence and bloodshed.

He showed no animosity towards anybody and preached forgiveness and reconciliation. That is what made him a great human being; a great leader.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we read how Joseph finally reveals himself to the brothers who had sold him as a slave twenty two years previously. He had every right to be angry and it certainly was his prerogative to take his revenge against those who had caused him and his beloved father, so much pain and anguish.

But instead what does he say? “Now do not be upset or angry with yourselves that you sold me here, for G-d sent me ahead of you to be a provider of sustenance for you.”

What’s more, later on when he bids them farewell on their return journey to Canaan to inform Jacob that he was alive and the ruler of Egypt he urges them “not to get angry on the way”. The biblical commentator, Rashi, asks what he meant when he told them not to get angry.

And he explains that Joseph was afraid that en route they may quarrel and wish to apportion blame upon those who they thought were ultimately responsible for his sale. And so he cautioned them against that, as in reality it was a futile discussion that would lead to anger, because ultimately he was sent to Egypt because this was part of the Divine plan and not anybody’s fault.

As a leader Joseph was emphasizing that his first and foremost responsibility was to bring peace and harmony into the world and not hatred and animosity.

This attitude does not only apply to great leaders but to each and every one of us. When there is peace then everything else falls into place; in our personal lives, in our community and in the world.

Commenting on death Nelson Mandela said, “Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”

Let us all attempt to make an effort and fulfill our duty in transforming this physical, mundane and sometimes violent world into a place of peace and harmony and one in which G-d’s presence can be felt by all.

Rabbi Pesach Efune is a Chabad emissary based in Brighton, England. He was born and raised in apartheid South Africa. He is the father of Algemeiner Editor Dovid Efune.

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