Lessons from Nelson Mandela

As the world continues to mourn the loss of Nelson Mandela and celebrate his life, thoughts of his relevance to business may not immediately spring to mind.

As the world continues to mourn the loss of Nelson Mandela and celebrate his life, thoughts of his relevance to business may not immediately spring to mind. However, the legacies that he leaves behind extend beyond social justice and political action. His example of leadership in action can serve as a model for executives today to understand the nuances of successful diversity and inclusion strategy and implementation. 

These principles of leadership transcend borders, language, and generation. Mandela's words remind us that achieving a diverse workforce and an inclusive environment is not much different than attaining any other leadership goal. With adequate commitment, resources, and action, anything is possible – no matter where an organization is on the continuum of diversity and inclusion maturity.

Mandela Lesson #1: "I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

Human nature and evolution dictate that diversity and inclusion is an unending journey. Success tomorrow will have a different meaning than today because the workforce will continue to change. Thus, organizations must ensure their diversity and inclusion strategies evolve with the world and communities around them. While we may momentarily bask in a "job well done," the work to ensure the diversity and inclusion necessary for the most productive and innovative workforce continues. 

Mandela Lesson #2: "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Even best practice companies have had diversity and inclusion "missteps" at times, but their success lies in a willingness to keep trying. Don't be among the companies that abandon ship due to one or two efforts that have resulted in a less-than-desired return or impact. Seek first to uncover the cause and then course correct based on enhanced understanding.

Mandela Lesson #3: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate...”

Prejudice and discrimination are not innate. Whether they are learned via upbringing or other societal influences, they are not a core part of our makeup. However, they can contribute to the unconscious biases that frame our views of the people around us. As part of organizational efforts to increase cultural understanding and sensitivity, programming or training which addresses unconscious bias is key to developing more effective teams and managers. 

Mandela Lesson 4: “I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles.”

Organizations often focus diversity efforts solely on the "tip of the iceberg" or visible, diversity characteristics (i.e., gender, age, race/skin color, physical ability, etc.). This is vital, especially to ensure that opportunity is provided to groups who have previously been excluded and who often remain underrepresented.

However, in addition to visible diversity, organizations must consider the "below the water-line" or invisible, diversity traits that are also vital to the success of any diversity and inclusion effort (i.e., culture, religion, values, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, etc.).

This combined "set" of diversity traits helps to foster a much more profound discussion and understanding of how diversity can be leveraged effectively across the full organization. The diversity of thought that results from having people from all backgrounds - visible and invisible - at the table has been consistently shown to improve organizational problem-solving, creativity, and innovation. 

As President Obama remarked earlier this week, Mandela now belongs to the ages – and, thankfully, so does his wisdom. As we greet another new year full of opportunity and benchmarks to surpass, let us keep one final Mandela lesson in mind:

“It always seems impossible until it's done.”

Latraviette Smith, former VP, global diversity and inclusion for American Express, has spent 15 years in communications in agency, corporate, consumer, and multicultural PR, as well as senior marketing roles. Her column will focus on the PR industry's ongoing efforts to advance diversity among its ranks at all levels. Connect with her via LinkedIn or at latraviette@gmail.com. 

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