By Dr. Max Klau, Vice President of Leadership Development, City Year, Inc. 

It’s December, and our value of the month here at City Year is“Level Five Leadership.”  The concept, first presented by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, refers to leaders who operate with a paradoxical blend of profound personal humility and intense professional will.  This is also the month when City Year joins communities around the globe in mourning the recent death of Nelson Mandela.  Surely, it is appropriate to seek insights about level five leadership from his remarkable example and life.

Let’s begin with the matter of intense professional will.  On this front, Mandela provides an example of nearly unfathomable will.  At the trial that sent him to jail for 27 years, he famously stated:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” – Nelson Mandela

It is difficult to find a more profound example of professional will in the modern era.

How about profound personal humility?  A recent article in the New York Times argues that this was the most inspiring element of Mandela’s example:

“[H]e did not make the moment of South Africa’s transition about himself. It was not about his being in jail for 27 years. It was not about his need for retribution….Mandela did not make himself the hope…He saw his leadership challenge as inspiring hope in others, so they would do the hard work of reconciliation. It was in that sense that he accomplished big things by making himself smaller than the moment.”- Thomas L. Friedman, “Why Mandela Was Unique”, The New York Times, Dec. 10, 2013

Once again, it is difficult to find a more profound example of humility in the modern era.  From his willingness to forgive his captors to his decision to step down after just one term as President, Mandela embodied humility to a degree rarely seen in human affairs in this, or any era.

City Year is an organization that aspires to develop a generation of inspiring and effective civic leaders, and Mandela has long been a profoundly beloved ideal illuminating the depths and heights of the civic potential we dream of unleashing in our corps members and ourselves.  Through his life, he proved that even the most vicious, intractable forces of racism and oppression could be transformed through the courage, perseverance, and idealism of ordinary citizens inspired by a vision of a better world.  Equally important, he showed us all that Martin Luther King’s dream of a “beloved community” was real and achievable.  For Mandela, the end goal was not just desegregation and the end of apartheid; it was reconciliation: a world in which white oppressors and the blacks they oppressed would step together into a new era of partnership, respect, and dignity.

Given the darkness of so many of the headlines we read today, it is so easy to begin to believe that the cynic’s view of the world is accurate and realistic:  Our situation is hopeless, human beings are by nature violent, petty, and selfish, and only the most naïve fools could ever believe otherwise.  Thanks to Nelson Mandela, every idealist in the world has an example to highlight to prove the cynics wrong.  Apartheid was a massive and brutal institution that endured for generations… and it is gone.  Mandela endured 27 years in prison without losing his hope for a better world and his empathy for others, including those who kept him captive.  Beyond any shadow of a doubt, human nature includes this boundless capacity for goodness and compassion.

Here at City Year, we know that we still have a long road ahead in our effort to transform the high school dropout crisis—another civic challenge that is massive, intractable, and has endured for generations.  But one of the things that gives us the strength and resolve to wake up and serve another day is the example set by Mandela.  When we work together, operate with humility, live out our highest values, and never, ever give up, we, too, can turn our vision into our reality.

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