Hills to climb, views to explore, bridges to build

Nelson Mandela

Hills to climb, views to explore, bridges to build

Leadership reflections on Nelson Mandela International Day

By Peter Cunningham and Renzo Costa

We are living through a global leadership crisis. This crisis has been further highlighted by how climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and socio-economic inequalities are challenging societal organisations and priorities. Even though the impact and burden of these challenges are not equally shared among regions, nations and populations, one thing is clear: we are all in this together.

But the question needs to be asked: are our leaders in it together?

Are they climbing the hills of division exacerbated by economic and political injustices? Are they exploring the different views that each division presents? Are they building bridges so that others can also cross these divisions?

Nelson Mandela’s leadership serves as source of inspiration to help us navigate today’s leadership crisis. Mandela climbed the steep hills of division, brought together strongly opposing views, and built the bridges of truth and reconciliation.   

Mandela was globally recognised for his ability to listen, learn and connect across divides. In the iconic moment when he congratulated the South African rugby team on winning the 1995 World Cup, he exemplified his continuous and long-fought struggle to bring the South African people together across racial divides. Mandela had the firm conviction that in order to build a united nation, it was necessary to heal the wounds of the past that adversely affected all South Africans.

He saw it as his responsibility as a leader to enable this healing process and to ensure that people who opposed him were also engaged in the vision that he had for a New South Africa. And not only was he successful in bringing people together, but he did so while remaining authentic to his principles.

His authenticity helped him build trust and credibility across social and political divisions, which is key in the practice of leadership. Being tolerant towards others and holding the space for people to be able to express themselves and rediscover a constructive mindset is paramount. This is where the level of trust that exists between people and between teams comes into play. If you have invested in creating a high-trust culture, the tolerance across a group will be higher and the ability and commitment to maintain focus on the activities that matter most will also be higher. This trust is what allows people to take the risk of speaking up or offering new ideas.   

Throughout his entire life Mandela showed impressive levels of resilience, which is fundamental to the practice of leadership. Individual resilience is expressed through one’s ability to always show one’s best self, especially during difficult times. It is about retaining a sense of calm in challenging circumstances and learning from ‘stretch experiences’ while being able to integrate the lessons you have learned into new and more constructive behaviours and practices. This feeds into what Carol Dweck calls the ‘growth mindset’, which involves believing that one’s abilities can be continuously developed and nurtured, leading to increased commitment, self-empowerment and higher levels of achievement. Having a growth mindset is crucial in the practice of leadership.

Mandela’s style of leadership serves as inspiration to tackle today’s global leadership crisis. The Geneva Leadership Alliance works to radically expand the understanding of what leadership means and of who can lead. We explore the mindsets, skillsets and toolsets needed to bring diverse people together to advance the understanding, practice and positive impact of leading in public, private, and non-profit organisations and civil society.


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We build bridges of understanding to advance peace, security and international cooperation. Mandela was widely recognised for his ability to build bridges of this kind. He also taught us that bridges not only have to be built; they must also be crossed.

As he once said: “I have walked that long road to freedom …. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb” (Long Walk to Freedom, 1995). May Mandela’s great resilience, convictions and ability to bring different people together inspire us to continue climbing the many hills encountered in the practice of leadership, and to keep crossing the bridges that we build.