Leadership Lessons From Nelson Mandela

“What is the end I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?”
– Nelson Mandela

This blog entry isn’t so much about On Call scheduling, the scheduling process, or implementing the on-call scheduling software. It is about inspirational leadership in its various forms and team building. I am of the opinion that most successful physician schedulers are leaders and diplomats, even if they don’t carry an official title.

Such scheduler-leaders build team support by “leading from behind” and also coming to the front when strong leadership must be felt.

The building is much tougher than destroying. It is much easier to criticize the schedule and its fairness (or lack thereof) than to come up with something constructively new. It may also seem easier to “lead” by command, charisma, or coercion than leading from “behind”.

How can you usher in change without igniting a civil war?

Mandela demonstrated considerable skill and political savvy to pull off what many deemed impossible: peacefully guiding South Africa through a period of radical turmoil and political transformation. He refused to succumb to revenge and the politics of hatred that large parts of the anti-apartheid movement wanted at that time. His public speeches, courage, and resilience prevented civil war.

As a politician, Mandela chose a pragmatic approach. He saw the world as nuanced and complex; simple explanations often didn’t correspond to reality. Great leaders do not lead by fear or force, but diplomacy and allow for such “grey” areas. They also know that abandoning a failed idea is a form of leadership too.

Even when a strategy has been well executed and the “ends” achieved, the means to the end will echo into the future.

Characteristics of Mandela Leadership: (based on “Leading Like Mandela” by Martin Kalungu-Banda)

    1. Each person matters. Each person that encountered Mandela’s leadership felt personally attended to and served. Leadership is about people, respecting them, and giving them undivided attention while in your presence. They know they matter.
    2. Look for gifts in others. Inspirational leaders have the ability to bring out the best in the people they are entrusted to work with. Practice acknowledging the giftedness in other people and encourage them to use it. Be sure to keep yourself “well-watered” with inspirational resources of your own, including nature and other inspiring people.
    3. Great Leaders have courage. “Feel the fear and act anyway,” they say. The act of appearing fearless in order to inspire others doesn’t mean ignoring the fear. It may mean facing the reality of the situation and following your course of action anyway. It may also mean restraint and trusting the ability of the people around you.
    4. Lead by example, not just words. Ask of others only what you are ready to do yourself.
    5. Project a stable ethical image. What are your values? Are your words and actions in alignment? Your ethical image and credibility are at stake. Encourage people to give you honest feedback and find time for regular reflection on your own.
    6. Leaders make mistakes. Effective Leadership doesn’t have to be flawless. Don’t shy away from admitting mistakes and limitations. Humility attracts people, arrogance does not.
    7. Honest challenges are okay. Show that current difficulties can be faced without throwing in the towel. Demonstrate honest inquiry and sharing of frustrations while believing in the human genius to find solutions.
    8. Treat your critics well. Honor the good in other people. Make an effort to identify and acknowledge, privately and publicly, what is praiseworthy in those who oppose you. You will win them to your side, provided this is done with honesty and goodwill.
    9. Celebrate positive achievements as they come, not as an end in themselves, but as a sign that you are moving closer to the goals you are striving to attain.

Key Takeaway

A leader without a team may be a “hero” for a day, but will not achieve something long-term. “Mandela Leadership” will let others feel capable too. With the combined interest and contributions of other members of your group, sustainable change can take place and grow.


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