Tag Archive for: democracy

Chris Kolenda Leading with Dignity: Mandela's Lesson for Biden and Us All

Leading with Dignity: Mandela’s Lesson for Biden and Us All

Mandela’s leadership was about choosing dignity over power

I spent the past two weeks in South Africa, our final stop being the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on June 27th. Mandela’s wisdom and grace inspired me. He negotiated a peaceful transfer of power from the delegitimized apartheid government to one that represented all South Africans and launched the Truth and Reconciliation process that followed.

President Joe Biden’s disastrous debate occurred that evening. The contrast was striking. 

Unlike most developing world leaders who rewrite the rules to stay in control, Mandela stepped down after a single term. 

  1. Commitment to Democracy: Mandela believed sincerely in the principles of democracy and wanted to set a precedent for peaceful and democratic transitions of power in South Africa. By stepping down after one term, he reinforced the importance of constitutional democracy and term limits.
  2. Age and Health: Mandela was 80 years old when he stepped down. Significant factors were his age and desire to spend more time with his family after decades of political and personal struggles.
  3. Leadership Transition: Mandela was keen on ensuring a smooth transition of power. Thabo Mbeki, who had served as his Deputy President, was well-prepared to take over. Mandela supported Mbeki’s candidacy, ensuring continuity and stability for the nation.
  4. Continuing Legacy: After stepping down, Mandela remained active in various social and humanitarian causes. He focused on HIV/AIDS awareness and education through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

By stepping down, Nelson Mandela underscored his commitment to the principles he fought for and ensured that South Africa’s democracy would be robust and resilient in the years to come.

South Africa certainly has its issues today. The African National Congress has been running the country virtually unopposed since 1994 and has become disastrously corrupt. The problem is so bad that the ANC lost significant power in this year’s election, having to share power with the Democratic Alliance.

I’m grateful to President Biden. He visited my Afghanistan outpost in 2008, and in his speeches, he often refers to his visit to the Kunar River Valley. He even mentioned me and our unit in a 2010 speech at the VFW convention. 

Today, he’s stubbornly clinging to power. Aides and family members have systematically misled the public that everything’s fine and that we should not believe our own eyes that have watched the evident mental and physical decline. The debate showed a naked emperor.

He seems to have surrounded himself with people who will tell him what he wants to hear (you’re the only one who can save us) instead of what he needs to hear (it’s time to step down with a secure place in history and set up an appealing successor to win). 

Who benefits from egging him on?

What’s the upshot for you and me? You need trusted advisors who want what’s best for you and will tell you the truth, including when it’s time for another chapter

Departing the scene with dignity, whether by promotion, transfer, or retirement, while setting up your organization to thrive in your absence is among the most significant legacies you can bestow. 

Leaders like George Washington and Nelson Mandela show the way. 

Don’t let your leadership get to this point. Book a call with me so we can create a game plan.

5 Leadership Take-aways From January 6 That You Can Apply Right Now

It was a horrifying and despicable scene, the violent mob egged on by a sitting President, ransacking our Capitol to disrupt the final act of confirming the 2020 election results.

I used to live 6 blocks from the Capitol and briefed members of both Houses. To see those halls damaged was shocking. The loss of life deeply saddens me. I’m troubled by the state of affairs that led to this incident. 

A democracy is only as strong as the willingness of its people to protect it. Americans will need to rise to the occasion. 

The same divisive and intolerant practices that have characterized both sides of the partisan divide will not yield different results. 

Things can get much worse if we let them.


What are some practical leadership takeaways? 

1. A leader serves everyone on the team.

There’s a difference between a demagogue and a leader. 

A demagogue is one who gains popularity by whipping-up animosities. 

A leader inspires each person to contribute their best to the team’s success.

You’ve met this standard when your most vulnerable employees feel the safety and confidence to contribute their best and most authentic selves.

2. Character counts. 

You don’t have to be perfect. The only people who’ve never erred are the ones who’ve attempted nothing. 

You build character in the arena of life, making mistakes and learning from them.

The person who repeats and doubles-down on awful behavior is one to get off of your team. 

I’ve seen leaders rationalize toxic behavior. “The jerk gets results.”

The chickens always come home to roost – sometimes with the toxic leader present, other times you realize it after the fact. 

Toxic leaders damage people, teams, and institutions.

3. Values matter. 

Don’t handwave your values with feel-good statements. 

Be clear on your standards and expectations. 

Set the right example. Every employee should know what right looks like, and your actions should be the model.

Let people know that violence, bullying, and name-calling are unacceptable, too. 

No matter how self-righteous a person thinks they are, the physical, mental, or emotional abuse of another human being is wrong and damaging. 

Politically-correct bigotry is still bigotry, and it’s not OK.

4. Build bridges, rather than walls.

Right now, your employees—like many Americans—may be bitterly divided along political lines. 

A diverse team with buy-in to a common purpose, shared objectives, and respectful dialogue has resilience.

Belittling or lecturing people who disagree with you is the fast-track to resentment and paralysis.

If you want to get things done, you need to go to the other person’s bus-stop and see the issue from their point of view.

When you can describe their view back to them and get, “that’s exactly right,” you are ready to find solutions to challenging problems.

Empathy is fundamental to gaining buy-in and getting things done.

5. Keep calm and don’t recycle outrage.

In social and broadcast media, outrageous is contagious. 

Peddling outrage undermines civil discourse. 

Competing animosities escalate and eventually explode. 

What is your #1 leadership lesson?