Invictus: A Leadership Case Study for Years to Come

Posted 01.04.2010

So one of the wonderful things (for me at least) about the end of year holidays is the opportunity to see a lot of first run movies. This year I saw Avatar (terrific 3D cinematography, weak script), Up in the Air (brilliant rendition of soulless business travel) and Invictus which is the subject of this post.

In case you’re not familiar with it, Invictus is director Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of Nelson Mandela’s first days as president of post-apartheid South Africa and how Mandela used the historically hapless South African Springboks rugby team to bring the country together. When he took office in 1994, Mandela recognized that the Springboks were the passion of white South Africans while black South Africans would cheer for whatever team was playing against the Springboks. As it happened, the 1995 Rugby World Cup was scheduled to take place in South Africa. Embodied by the slogan, “One Team, One Country,” Mandela set the goal of the Springboks winning the World Cup. With Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Springboks team captain, Francois Pinnear, this trailer provides a nice overview of the movie.

If you’re a leader or are someone who is working to develop leaders (the two are not mutually exclusive by the way), you have to see this movie. When it comes out on DVD, you have to buy it and then promise yourself you’re going to watch it again at least 2 or 3 times a year. It is simply one of the best case studies I’ve ever seen of how a transformative leader practices his craft. I wish I had taken notes when I saw it, but here’s a quick list of some of the ways in which the movie portrays how Mandela established his leadership as President:

Show Courtesy and Grace:  On his first morning as President in his new office, Mandela slowly walked through the suite making eye contact, smiling and saying, “Good morning,” to everyone he passed. This included the white staff members of the previous President who were packing their boxes on the assumption that they would be sacked later that day.

Build a Team for the Future: Mandela stunned both his supporters and doubters by building a staff of both blacks and whites. This extended to his personal security detail which ended up including white agents who had been deployed against Mandela’s African National Congress in the apartheid era. Mandela wanted a unified country and he understood that his own team needed to reflect that goal.

Back Up Your Priorities with Audacious Goals: Mandela had two immediate priorities as President – reconciliation between blacks and whites and building the economic base of the country. He seized on the goal of winning the World Cup as a means to encourage reconciliation. On the economic front, the movie makes the point that Mandela spent a lot of his time travelling around the globe encouraging other countries to invest in South Africa.

Visibly Support Your Goals: Mandela’s team made sure there was plenty of press coverage of him meeting with world leaders about investing in his country. He was diligent and courageous in attending the rugby matches in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of people who were hostile to him personally and to what he represented. 

Leverage Your Footprint: Mandela understood how to combine the power of his office with personal humility to establish connections that powerfully motivated people. To convince the captain, Francois Pinnear, that the rugby team had an important role to play in the country’s future, he invited him to tea at the presidential office and then immediately put him at ease by talking sports. In one memorable scene in the movie, Mandela is shown quizzing himself on the names of the Springbok players. A few scenes later, after his presidential helicopter has landed on the practice field, Mandela walks up to each player, shakes their hand, addresses them by name and wishes them luck. The combination of leveraging the footprint of his office while showing personal grace motivated people to do amazing things for themselves and their country.

I could go on and on, but you need to see the movie yourself. If you have seen it, what leadership lessons stood out most strongly for you? Do any of the lessons I drew out here have particular resonance with your own personal experience?