June 2, 2021

Two Lessons I learned from Nelson Mandela

I once had the privilege and pleasure to sit beside the late President Nelson Mandela for over two hours.

Around noon on the day, the presidential entourage arrived at the lunch venue and was duly met by the official greeting party. Official handshakes all round. As Mandela turned to walk into the hotel he spied three youngsters standing to one side of the hotel entrance and asked: “Who are they?”

I replied that they were my children. I had arranged for my three young children to stand in a place where they could see him arrive – but be out of the way. Clearly my ‘out of the way’ was not out of Mandela’s eyesight! 

He walked over to them, much to the consternation of his security detachment! Shaking each by the hand the President asked their names, were they in school, and advised them to study hard. Each of my children remembers that day, the occasion etched in their memories.

Then we walked into the hotel. Every hotel employee along the walk was greeted. Hotel security staff. Cleaners. All received the same smile and personal hello. Finally, into the hall where hundreds of guests were seated at tables for lunch, rose to applaud his entry. He greeted each VIP guest seated at the high table in turn.

During the lunch, despite the strenuous efforts of security to keep them away, there seemed to be a constant stream of people sneaking up to the high table to say hello or to ask for his autograph on his book or their menu. Each was graciously received and walked away clutching his signature.

Egalitarianism at work. Everyone was treated equally. Whether he spoke to them for just a few seconds or for longer, each person was the only person in Mandela’s world for that brief period of time. Direct eye contact. A smile and greeting. Maids and ambassadors (and my young children) all treated alike – with warmth and dignity as if it were his honour to meet them.

As lunch was ending, I rose to give a brief speech of introduction to the great man – speaking over the background noise as lunch plates were being cleared and coffee being served. He then rose to give his address. But before he opened the leather cover that contained his prepared speech, he turned towards the high table to thank me for the words of introduction and commenced speaking in direct response to something I had said – including that well-known story about being given his own coffee cup on his first day of his new job – later learning the reason why he was the only person in the company to have his own coffee cup!

He must have spoken for about 10 minutes. During which the room was silent. Even the waiters and waitresses, who surely could not understand a word, not just because their English might not be up to scratch but even for the best of English speakers Mandela’s accent required us to listen carefully. 

Not a plate was moved. 

Not a cup placed on its saucer.

Nor a coffee poured. 

Everyone was listening to the great man speak.

Finally, he turned to the prepared address. At that point I noticed that the wait staff started to move once more. The service staff once again set about their duties.

Afterwards, when I discussed this observation with my Thai colleagues they explained. Thais understand ‘heart’ (indeed there are hundreds of words and phrases in the Thai language using the word ‘heart’). When he was talking at the start they could feel this was a great man speaking. From the heart. His own words. And they needed to pay him respect. Then, when he turned to the speech they could sense this was not him speaking any more. These were someone else’s words. They no longer needed to show respect.

I was reminded of this lesson when years later a colleague returned from a function where our CEO had given a speech that had been written for him by the same colleague. I asked how the speech had gone. “Quite well,” came the reply, “He read it as if he meant it.” I wondered if the waiters at that lunch had stopped while he was reading the speech.

Authenticity. People can sense when what you say is from your heart.