Humility is a virtue that firms must embrace

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We demand and accept humility in our leaders. We want our leaders to have almost saintly humility.

While covering South Africa’s transition to democracy for Thomson Reuters for 10 years and as a Washington correspondent for Independent Newspapers South Africa, I learnt how humility embodied Nelson Mandela’s other virtues of dedication and love for our country, responsibility, accountability, kindness, humour, forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and ultimately his leadership style.

In the words of the 19th-century philosopher and art critic John Ruskin: “The first test of a truly great man is his humility.”

Also, in his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

Mandela taught me that humility is the most powerful paradox in business. For me, humility means that our business leaders must be willing to see the world larger than themselves, be willing to subordinate their egos to a cause greater than themselves, thus subordinating their personal interests to the greater cause of serving the nation and their customers and the world at large.

Humility permeated Nelson Mandela’s dealings with business and business leaders. From Mandela, I learnt that people who are genuinely humble are usually respectful, willing to admit mistakes, and are always focused on their goal.

Mandela taught me, as a journalist, not to feel entitled to special privileges, that those who do not feel entitled ultimately possess an aura of humility. Similarly, a humble person is not pompous or arrogant, but possesses subdued pride.

Mandela once told me while I was a Reuters correspondent that for South African business leaders and corporates to be successful, they must be toughly humble.

At a meeting with American business leaders in Washington, which I attended with him in 1998, Mandela told them to go back to basics, by remembering the basic rule of selling: find out what customers want and give it to them.

All he wanted was for the business leaders around the world to find out what South Africans wanted and for him South Africa was and is always open for business.

He defined business leadership as inspiring employees to devote their time and talent in meaningful, profitable and competitive service to the company.

He said executives should dump the incorrect assumption that employees would do a task just because their managers said it needed to be done. Rather, managers should always regard an assignment or a job as a meaningful mission and for employees to apply special gifts to the mission.

In other words, Mandela taught us that humility is quiet but speaks loudly through our actions.

His dedication and political love to our country was shown when even after 27 years of prison and hardship, only one thing counted for Madiba: fighting for a prosperous future for all the people of the new South Africa.

Mandela was kind.

Under the weight of apartheid, for many years, we had come to believe the best we could hope for was random acts of kindness. While we agreed that random acts of kindness were a positive step in the right direction, Mandela did not believe the world could afford for kindness to be random. Mandela taught us that kindness should never be random. There must be kindness all the time.

He taught us that kindness is a cure. That kindness possesses good and restorative powers, which touch people’s hearts, melt away differences and build bridges. That is why Mandela had tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd.

Mandela sacrificed a lot to free us from apartheid bondage. Sacrifices, sometimes large or small, involve taking risks. A sacrifice should not be for oneself. And when we are asked to make sacrifices, they are meaningful only if they are not forced.

Very few sacrifice their pleasures willingly. And perhaps that is the way of the world. However, without Mandela’s sacrifices, we would not be who we are or where we are now as a nation.

These days, some leaders tend to be selfish. They accumulate power for themselves and remain in their positions for life. The ones who are more selfless rarely last long. Mandela served only one term as president. That is why the notion that leaders sacrifice their time and lifestyle to serve their country has to be seen in relation to how responsible they have been with their power.

Most of the time they do not really regret the sacrifices. Mandela did not regret his lifelong sacrifices fighting apartheid. He taught us that humility is a prerequisite for being a great team member, that effective team members subordinate themselves to the team, setting aside personal agendas for the greater good of the team.

It is a pity that South African business does not entirely embrace humility. It remains divided along racial and political lines. Business is still not speaking with one voice. There are many organisations, such as the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce, Business Unity SA, the Black Business Council, the Black Management Forum and others.

Our leaders, in business or politics, must realise that for South Africa, humility is the requisite quality for growth and development. We cannot grow unless we humbly admit that we can grow.

For business leaders, there should be no pride without humility. It’s important to be proud for the organisations they lead, however, it is also important to balance pride with an equal measure of humility.

Mandela was accountable and responsible. Responsibility describes what we are obligated to do, and accountability means that we must answer to someone for the resulting consequences.

In many instances responsibility and accountability seems to be pushed aside in our never-ending quest to place blame, pointing at anyone but ourselves. Instead of accountability, we often get deflection of responsibility, and self-glorification.

Not so with Mandela. As president and leader of the ANC, he took responsibility. His fight for democracy was conducted with precision, perseverance and diligence. His struggle for freedom, justice and democracy and his commitment to non-racialism were unprecedented.

He achieved so much, touched so many people and showed such leadership and courage. Throughout his fight for democracy, he never lost his compassion, humility and common humanity. That is why he is an inspiration to us all. He taught us to love ourselves, to love one another and to love our country.

Mandela leaves behind a rich legacy of reconciliation, world peace and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. He embodied the spirit of human rights and dignity in the way he lived his life.

Mandela taught us forgiveness and reconciliation so that all people, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their heart is touched they are capable of changing.

Talking about his warders, warrant officers Swart and Brand, Mandela said: “Men like Swart and Brand reinforced my belief in the essential humanity, even of those who had kept me behind bars for the previous 27 and a half years.”

He stood by his beliefs that all people were born equal, regardless of race, colour or creed, and should, therefore, be treated as such, hence through reconciliation, racism can be eliminated. That is why he unreservedly reconciled with some of his former captors.

Mandela’s profound sense of self was not based on contempt for his enemy, but on an acknowledgment of a shared humanity.

He never believed in anyone being inferior, but believed in a sense of self-worth acknowledged with pride and humility. When Mandela told a small child he had just met, “I am very honoured to meet you”, it was neither posturing nor condescension, but the genuine feeling of love and affection.

Mandela reminded all of us that every single one of us has an obligation to leadership. That everyone is a leader. That has been given to you. The only choice is whether we accept.

In Mandela, I learnt that humility and leadership requires that we serve, not be served. Mandela served.

So, as we celebrate his selfless efforts on behalf of human dignity, it also represents an enduring challenge for us all. The challenge is that we should not only preach humility, but live it.

To honour Mandela, South African companies must add humility to their list of business virtues.

* Rich Mkhondo, the executive for corporate affairs at MTN Group, was a foreign correspondent for Thomson Reuters during the 1990s and a Washington correspondent for Independent Newspapers between 1996 and 2000. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

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