It goes without saying that we live in a time of tremendous turmoil. Consider the events in the last 12 months… Nuclear threats. Racial tension. Mass shootings. Unfortunately, violence in America isn’t new. Neither is war. Incivility, violence and terror have always been with us. But, today, I’d like to move beyond that fact to another equally true, and more hopeful one. That is, that good has always been with us as well.
Think about it. History is full of people who made the world a better place. People who stood up to evil. People who left a legacy of service and created new possibilities for future generations. These individuals—leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Lincoln, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and so many more—remind us that light is every bit as real as darkness, and that we can change the world for the better, if we choose.
I’ve had the opportunity to interview many of these people over the years—Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., and so many more. And, looking back, it’s become apparent to me that the greatest leaders seem to share a few common characteristics. To be clear, It’s not some special type of DNA or gift at birth. Great leaders come in all shapes, sizes, and types: Men and women. Black, brown and white. Extroverted and introverted.
Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about the characteristics of the great leaders that I’ve spent time with in my life. I will focus on a leader, or two, per piece. The main point of these blogs will be to outline the common characteristics I’ve noticed in the great people of our time. I want to do this for a couple reasons. First, I’m a journalist who loves thinking about history. I’ve had a front row seat to the last 60 years of history, and I’m fascinated by trying to understand the world. Second, I believe that, in thinking about the great men and women in our history, I will remind myself (and hopefully you as well) of the things that each of us can do to be a little better in our own lives.
To get us started, I’d like to focus on the idea that all great leaders have faith in themselves and in their cause. Every single leader I’ve mentioned dealt with gut-wrenching adversity and injustice on their rise to success. And, despite that adversity, they’ve kept pressing forward. Perhaps no one embodies this characteristic more than Nelson Mandela. He was unjustly imprisoned for over a quarter-century for fighting for the rights of his people. His jail cell was 8 feet by 7 feet (2.4m by 2.1m). It was damp and concrete. He slept on a bed of straw. He endured daily verbal abuse. Can you imagine?! Many people would’ve given up hope in this circumstance.
Rather than accepting his fate, Mandela used his time in prison to improve himself. He read Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and other authors whose writing requires reflection. He learned Afrikaans, the common language of his prison wardens, so that he could communicate with them and convert them to his cause. He even earned his law degree from the University of London during this time. All this he did despite spending his days doing manual labor—breaking rocks into gravel, working in a lime quarry, and on and on. Mandela wouldn’t have had the strength to endure without faith in himself and in his cause.
The question that I’ve been pondering is, how he maintained and strengthen his resolve during his imprisonment? What he did seems so far beyond the realm of normal human ability. Most of us are just trying to figure out how to manage our day to day lives. How did Mandela deal with such injustice and find the strength to not only endure, but to flourish? One answer, I believe, is that Mandela constantly sought out hope promoting, inspiring information. He didn’t leave his faith to chance. That’s why he read so voraciously. It was his way of finding light in the darkness. His favorite poem during those dark years was Invictus, by William Ernest Hensley:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
It’s easy to imagine Mandela, suffering through his imprisonment, finding strength in those words. I love that poem, too. It reminds me that, no matter what happens in the outside world, I am in control of my choices. No matter what others say, or do, I am the one who decides how I show up each day. All the great leaders I’ve been around think this way. Without that belief, they’d never be able to make the difference they’ve made.
Building faith in yourself and in your purpose doesn’t happen by chance. No one wakes up one day and suddenly discovers that they have unconquerable resolve. Like all worthwhile goals, building faith in yourself happens day by day. Like Mandela, we have to seek inspiration out. We have to stoke the flames of our own fire—spending time in good books, thinking constructive thoughts. And, once inspired, we have to be willing to act on our convictions. Great leaders have always done so. And, to the extent that we want to make the most out of our lives, we must do the same.
PS — Click here to watch some additional reflections on my interview with Mandela. I think you’ll enjoy . . .