Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, chronicles how a freedom fighter came to lead his nation beyond apartheid towards a state reconciling oppressors and oppressed. The outstanding lesson of his story concerns the need to orientate leadership towards enabling “people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect”.

This ethical and political focus informs Mandela’s personal and public values, and makes his leadership effective and motivating. His leadership is respectful: in many ways he is a leader who follows, leading from ­behind and encouraging consensual strategies. Mandela rejects the “great man” ­approach, plays down his importance and stresses his role as one among many great men and women. He also rejects any desire for personal gain. At a time when FTSE directors justify huge salaries for themselves and small increases for their “followers”, Mandela’s stance is salutary.

This collaborative, sharing leadership reflects the Zulu concept of Ubuntu, whereby individual human dignity flowers in the collective wellbeing of humanity. A constant theme in the book is this sense of belonging to a greater whole and the desire to better the lives of others. The book explains how his concept of freedom broadened over time to encompass the need to work for his “brothers and sisters”. If we admire Mandela for this altruistic leadership we must ask how such a humanist ­vision may be cultivated in students and corporate leaders. How can we generate leadership, in companies and beyond, that sees people as more than “workers” or “consumers”, for example?

As a young clerk in a law firm, Mandela learnt that “a degree … meant nothing unless one went out into the community to prove oneself”. Business schools give students some of the practical experience to exercise leadership, but faced with widespread and legitimate criticism of current capitalism, it is clear that our management programmes need rethinking. Looking back on his studies, Mandela judged that hardly anything he learnt was relevant since teachers shied away from burning social questions. Maybe we are doing the same, teaching subjects, skills and values inappropriate to handle the social problems generated by our economic activities. Put simply, what are the skills needed for corporate leaders to prove themselves? Are they only a matter of economic performance?

Reading Mandela gives us an idea of the need to develop a corporate leadership that will allow everyone to “walk upright”. It also should make us more aware of the poverty of a managerial vision obsessed exclusively with selling products, making profits and earning good salaries. Mandela was also a supporter of actions to defend workers’ rights and a more equitable distribution of wealth. His strength and interest for business schools is that he is able to go beyond “black and white” approaches to problems – he aimed at justice for all. His leadership was not exclusive.

Given the power of modern corporations, managerial power goes beyond pure economic concerns: it is important, therefore, that managers learn from people such as Mandela since he conveys an understanding of human dignity and its role in the exercise of leadership.

There is a dissatisfaction with our managerial elites, corporate leaders are getting a bad press and the growing revolt of the outraged conveys messages that we should not ignore. Clearly these protest movements demand not only changes in the “system”, but also in the way companies are led. Our corporate leaders would be advised to read Mandela’s autobiography and to better understand society’s demands for more caring governance that goes beyond exclusively financial issues.

Within companies, for example, we can learn from Mandela how to involve personnel in trustworthy co-operative decision making that is mutually empowering. Mandela overcame the “them and us” approach – we should do the same and create co-operative corporate leadership. He also teaches us that our leaders need to create a leadership dynamic that is perceived as serving a “just cause”. What is the “just cause” of modern capitalism and how can our understanding of this question be translated into efficient leadership? To borrow from one of the section headings in Long Walk to Freedom, perhaps it is time our leaders started “talking with the enemy”.

Philip McLaughlin is dean of BEM Management School Bordeaux. He recently published a book of interviews and reflections on management education: ‘Altermanager, mode d’emploi’ (Editions Descartes).

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