Standing beside the Nelson Mandela sculpture at the site where he was captured in Howick, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, June 2017

This past week, Nelson Mandela’s legacy was celebrated on what would have been his 100th birthday. Simultaneously, leaders from all over the African continent gathered in South Africa to discuss all things leadership and change during the Obama Foundation’s Leaders: Africa program.

Both Mandela day on July 18 and the Obama leaders’ week-long program are designed as calls to leadership and action. This is not only crucial to Africa today but for leadership in the current global world state. Speakers at the Obama Leaders’ program reminded us that so much progress has been made contrary to popular press. The fact that I could follow the talks from Vancouver, BC and be mind-mindbogglingly engaged, inspired and provoked to new thinking is a case-in-point of our collective progress.

At the same time, the conversations reminded us that this is a time for leadership and action. “Worry less about what you want to become and worry more about what you want to do” 44th American President Obama urged. There is much to do. We cannot afford to rest on the legacy of our past icons or be content with the laurels that have already been achieved. The gatherings included conversation from iconic elders passing the baton to reminders to young leaders that they are the leaders of NOW and that no title is needed to lead. The emphasis in true Obama style was on the ‘office of the citizen’ – emphasizing civil engagement and action as our avenue for progress and change. Yet in his town hall conversation, Obama was also clear in noting that our changemaking cannot be completely separated from our politics and that political leadership and governance are different. The message was clearly that governance, civil society and business need to work together for the collective progress of our future. Accordingly, the gatherings and town halls covered everything from ethical leadership to governance to entrepreneurship to education to social impact to business innovation to learning from failure to building transformative organizations and leading into the future.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Kofi Annan & Lakhdar Brahimi, summed up the leadership principles that seemed to be the ethos of the leadership dialogues in their various commentary during the elder town hall: You are never too young to lead, We are never too old to learn. You must lead by working with a team, you never work alone. Learn to trust your teammates and pass the baton. Dream (and act on) ridiculous visions. Be awake in your dreaming and be conscious of the sacrifices inherent in leading collective change journeys. Leading may require breaking boundaries and status quo systems (age, gender, social norms). Be willing to make hard decisions in the interest of the collective. Stay the course.

I think if Mandela can hear the conversations being had and what is emerging, he would rest easy and pause to celebrate. How different the world is 100 years after his birth and what a great contribution he played in those changes! However, he would remind us to rest long enough only to refresh for the journey of change still ahead. In his words and one of my favorite Mandela quotes that hangs in my home:

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.

Mandela was indeed an iconic leader, but he did not lead alone and his call was for collective leadership and the engagement of all. As the Nelson Mandela Foundation reminded us this week, Mandela lived by three principles: free yourself, free others, serve everyday. In his words: “It is in your hands to make of the world a better place”

The events of this week have strengthened my resolve to a personal transformative leadership practice and to taking leadership action within my organizational work as well as in the leadership and social change issues that I feel called to. In particular, the dialogue from Mandela Day and Obama Leaders: Africa reinforced my committed to our mission for We Will Lead Africa. Our mission is to create platforms for sharing and inspiring everyday African leadership through storytelling. The dialogues on governance and women’s contribution assured me that we are on the right track for our 2018 calls for submissions.

We are indeed the ones we have been waiting for.


More on: