What Machiavelli Could Have Learned From Mandela

Posted 12.11.2013

macciavelliAlong with his many accomplishments in life, Nelson Mandela logged at least one more in his death. It’s hard to imagine that any other leader could generate the level of praise that Mandela has in the past week from such a wide spectrum of other leaders on the world stage. Obama in the U.S., Putin in Russia, Castro in Cuba and Assad in Syria were just a few of the heads of state lending their voices to the global chorus of tributes to the life and legacy of Mandela. It’s quite a remarkable feat to get the four of them to agree on anything but Mandela did it.

There’s been a lot written in the past few days about why Mandela was so universally loved and admired. At the same time that the remembrances of Mandela are being written, however, one of the most e-mailed articles on The New York Times website this week is an opinion piece by John T. Scott and Robert Zaretsky titled, “Why Machiavelli Still Matters.” In their article, Scott and Zaretsky describe Machiavelli’s 15th century book, The Prince as “a manual for those who wish to win and keep power,” and state that “Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good.”

It’s fascinating to me that in the same week that so many are singing the praises of the life of Mandela so many are also e-mailing an article on Machiavelli to their friends and colleagues. It’s an interesting window into the yin and yang of the human condition.

I have no idea if Mandela read Machiavelli but from everything I’ve read about the South African leader’s life, I’m pretty sure that he didn’t practice what Machiavelli preached. If, through some miracle of time travel, the two were able to have had a conversation about the practice of leadership, I think Machiavelli could have learned some things from Mandela.

Here’s just one example of what he might have learned.

In a wonderful column in the Financial Times titled What Mandela Taught Us, Simon Kuper recounts the story of what happened when Mandela learned in 1993 that a South African general named Constand Viljoen was plotting a guerilla war against multiracial rule. Mandela invited the General to his house for tea. When the General arrived, Mandela personally met him at the front door. He then invited him to his study for a cup of tea. Mandela asked the General if he took milk and sugar in his tea and prepared the cup for him. Mandela then proceeded to engage the General in conversation in his own language, Afrikaans, and convinced him that a guerilla war would be a losing proposition for all concerned. Mandela then suggested that Viljoen run for a seat in the South African parliament in the multi-racial elections. The General went on to do just that and played an instrumental role in the peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa. As Viljoen said in telling this story to a Mandela biographer, “Mandela wins over all who meet him.”

In his column, Kuper identifies five principles that leaders can learn from Mandela. The first is to “treat your enemies with respect and empathy.” I think if Machiavelli and Mandela were to engage in a conversation about effective leadership that the Florentine would likely argue that force must be met with greater force. In turn, Mandela might reply that force must be met with grace.

I shared the story about General Viljoen with my friend Breck Costin today and we both agreed that it’s a very cool story. Breck had this great term for what Mandela did in his conversation with the General and on so many other occasions (including how he used the 1995 Rugby World Cup tournament to bring his country together). Breck called it “political aikido” after the school of martial arts that redirects the force of an attack instead of meeting force with direct force.

Meeting force with grace is one more leadership lesson from Nelson Mandela that I would add to Simon Kuper’s excellent list. Machiavelli may not agree at first but my money would be on Mandela to persuade him.

If you’ve been reading and thinking this week about what leaders (Machiavellian or otherwise) can learn from Nelson Mandela what are the top lessons on your list?