A Lesson from South Africa: Witnessing the Freedom to Choose

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I strongly believe that leadership is not a consequence of position, but rather an outcome of behavior.  Last month, I witnessed leadership behavior at its finest.  The leaders I met were not executives of organizations or managers of teams.  They were individuals living a lesson learned through hardship and suffering.  I would like to share with you the stories of two inspiring gentlemen.  My hope is that we can practice the lesson illustrated by these two men and share this lesson with others.

I had the opportunity to spend some time in South Africa during the last two weeks of September.  What a spectacular experience – from the Cape of Good Hope to the Karongwe Game Reserve.  Commanding vistas of the South Atlantic Ocean from Table Mountain in Cape Town to the nearness of each of the Big Five as we traveled the Lowveld.  As I have returned home, many memories live in my mind.  But there are two people we met who inspired me through their leadership behaviors and attitudes.

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Street signs saved from the former District Six.

Our group of travelers first met Joe Schaffers on a sunny Saturday morning.  As one of the guides at the District Six museum in Cape Town, Mr. Schaffers described the forced removal of thousands of people from their homes.  This removal, during the Apartheid era, was solely based on the color of one’s skin.

Later that morning, we traveled to Robben Island and met Zozo.  Lulamile Zozo Madolo was our guide through the maximum security prison cells of that isolated island, best known for its housing of Nelson Mandela, again during the Apartheid years.


Mr. Lulamile Zozo Madolo in his former prison cell on Robben Island.

Both Mr. Schaffers and Mr. Madolo described that time of segregation and turmoil, hatred and violence.  The story of Apartheid is startling (and very similar to our American civil rights struggles).  But listening to these gentlemen was an experience to remember.  Their descriptions were from the first person perspective.  Both of these gentlemen were victims of the very scenes they were describing.  Mr. Schaffers and his family were removed from District Six and relocated to the Hanover Park area, north of Cape Town.  Mr. Madolo was a prisoner at Robben Island; incarcerated, from 1977 until his release in 1982, in that same maximum-security compound we visited.  These gentlemen were describing history – a very personal history.

What touched me the most was the manner in which these gentlemen spoke.  Neither expressed anger or hatred or vengeance against those who had arbitrarily taken away their freedoms.  They described the time – factually and without blame.  These gentlemen were not victims.  They were historians.  They were observers of a philosophy that chose to discriminate based on the color of one’s skin and not the color of one’s blood.  For as Mr. Schaffers told us, he is pretty sure that if a finger of a white, colored, and black were pricked, the blood from each would be the same color – red.

As I listened to these two gentlemen, I marveled at the calmness in their tone.  They had lost so much – but to listen to them, they had gained more.  A May 2012 Smithsonian magazine article quotes Mr. Madolo as saying, “Our leader, Nelson Mandela, taught us not to take revenge on our enemies.  And because of this today we are free, free, free.”

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

 – Nelson Mandela, spoken upon release from prison

Let’s pause to reflect on the teachings of Stephen R. Covey and his first of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Be Proactive.  Those individuals who excel in building a life full of promise, hope, and effectiveness are those who see life as a lesson – with our experiences as our teachers.  To not repeat history, one must learn from it.  Good and bad are our instructors.  But to focus on the bad will only weaken one’s mind and reduce one’s power.  The challenge is to be an observer and not a victim.

Remember Dr. Covey’s “space between the stimulus and response”?  That is the space that allows for Dr. Frankl’s freedom to choose.  At times, our limbic system kicks in before our prefrontal cortex has the opportunity to exercise its rational response.  As you well know, when that happens, our response becomes less effective than it could be.  But if we train ourselves, if we practice using that thoughtful muscle, is this not the essence of emotional intelligence?  As we learn about ourselves, learn to manage ourselves, and subsequently learn about others and how to manage our relationships, aren’t we successful when we take the role of an observer?  A victim is a target – whereas an observer is one who takes control of the outcome.

The November 2013 Harvard Business Review “Emotional Agility” article written by Susan David and Christina Congleton lists steps as to how one can separate self from negative thoughts and patterns.  One of the suggestions is to “act on your values”.

“When you un­hook yourself from your difficult thoughts and emotions, you expand your choices. You can decide to act in a way that aligns with your values.”

What is the leadership lesson I take from this experience?

 “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”

– Nelson Mandela

Look at Apartheid.  Look at the Holocaust.  Look at all of the other examples of segregation, ethnic cleansing and genocide.  Those that led, and lead, these outrages exhibit a total lack of emotional intelligence.  For once, may we step outside of ourselves and realize that this is a collaborative world?

Don’t think it is out of your hands.  For it is not.  We each serve as role models and have the opportunity to inspire others to do as we do.  No blame.  No pity.  No hate.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

– Nelson Mandela

I gladly offer my utmost admiration to Mr. Schaffers and Mr. Madolo, along with Mr. Mandela and the many others who suffered the same fates yet responded with dignity and grace.   Thank you for this very humbling experience.

photos into the light


One Comment on “A Lesson from South Africa: Witnessing the Freedom to Choose”

  1. […] witnessing the gift of forgiveness throughout the country in my October 2013 blog posting, “A Lesson from South Africa:  Witnessing the Freedom to Choose”.  But up to this point, I have not described the second half of this journey – the opportunity […]

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