Nelson Mandela: Courage and Leadership in His Elder Years

Photo Credit: p_c_w via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: p_c_w via Compfight cc

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Nelson Mandela over the past several days. Since he died last Friday (December 6, 2013), I’ve considered especially the moral courage he demonstrated during his 95 years as well as his ability to work with and lead others even as he aged into his elder (and elder, elder) years — times when most people think about quitting work.

Two interesting quotes from Bill Keller’s extensive New York Times Nelson Mandela obituary remind me that just like any other elder, he took steps to ensure his stamina and condition, attending to physical challenges of aging — while at the exact time he assumed extraordinary leadership responsibilities.                              

  • After his release he built a vacation home near his ancestral village, a brick replica of the warden’s hours [where he had lived during his final years in prison]. This was pure pragmatism, he explained: he was accustomed to the floor plan and could find the bathroom at night without stumbling in the dark.
  • Mr. Mandela, wearing a hearing aid and orthopedic socks, soldiered on through 12-hour campaign days…”

Nelson Mandela lived a long, long life — the first half of it with immense racial and philosophical challenges thrown in his path. Remarkably, he never lost his ability to recognize his errors, model humility, lead with optimism, focus on reconciliation, and  perhaps most importantly, forgive. All of these characteristics he demonstrated during the second half — or maybe it was the last third — of his life.

A Few More Nelson Mandela Stories

  • Check out the post, Mandela… Forever… over at Dr. Bill Thomas’ Changing Aging blog. Written by Kavan Peterson, the post includes a video that illustrates how Nelson Mandela believed that global elders, with their wisdom, moral courage, and experience, can collaborate to solve problems.
  • Read Five Nelson Mandela Tributes that Will Change How You Think by Jana McGregor, appearing in the Washington Post, a piece with links to the five excellent tributes, including a realistic Mandela portrayal by Swarthmore professor, Timothy Burke (less idealistic than my thoughts here on this blog post).
  • Watch a video of Maya Angelou reciting her poem His Day is Done, commissioned by the U.S. Department of State as a Mandela tribute from the people of the United States.

At a 90th birthday celebration for Walter Sisulu in 2002 Mandela observed, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” Those of us who are now beginning to re-imagine lives in our retirement years and  thinking about ways we can help others, or at least undertake small challenges that might improve the world a bit, may well want to keep his words in mind.

A Few More of My Favorite Nelson Mandela Quotes

The comments below, whenever I read them, make me pause for a moment to think about the importance of developing moral courage and crafting a meaningful life, but most importantly, understanding and offering forgiveness. Mandela shared most of these thoughts after he was released from prison — beginning at age 71.

  • As I walked out the door to my freedom, I learned that if I did not leave all of the anger, hatred, and bitterness behind, I would still be in prison.
  • Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.
  • We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
  • I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.
  • I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.
  • Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
  • Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
  • The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
  • Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.