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The Emotional Intelligence of Nelson Mandela


Nelson Mandela famously forgave the people who imprisoned him, an extraordinary thing especially since they were willing actors in an abusive system, one that imposed decades of indescribable suffering and violence on millions of his people. He forgave Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for doing business with the apartheid regime and would probably forgive members of the U.S. Congress and political pundits who labeled him a Communist and terrorist even upon the announcement of his death. 
     There were American diplomats who ignored the ignored the brutality and violence of the apartheid government and supported his imprisonment. Most of us would find that hard to take. Most of us struggle to accept being misjudged or unfairly labeled even when the consequences are simply emotional tensions. And in our sound bite culture, there is a rush to idolize a person with such a remarkable emotional capacity. We might miss the ways he was exactly like the rest of us and in doing that miss also the opportunity to learn how we might be more like him.  
     “Mandela didn’t reconcile with white South Africans out of some kind of Christlike purity,” writes Peter Beinart at TheDaily Beast. “He always insisted on something in return.” When he was offered release from prison on the condition that he renounce violence six times by apartheid leaders, he responded by saying he would renounce violence when the white government did the same. “The African National Congress did not suspend the armed struggle for another six years," states Beinart, "until Mandela had been unconditionally released from prison and the ANC unbanned.” 

    Mandela used his imprisonment as leverage, foregoing personal freedom in the short term because the long game was a transformed society with freedom for his people. Visionary thinking and perseverance in the absence of tangible hope that the goal is achievable requires a high degree of mastery over negativity, anxiety and anger, the hallmark of emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence is the skill set through which we expand the capacity to tolerate the kind of ambiguity Mandela faced in his 27-year sentence: knowing his purpose and his plan for realizing it, while not-knowing how long it would take for progress to be made nor what the forces beyond his control would do to derail him. While he was successful in the end, forgiveness and reconciliation were the last stage in a lengthy process, that came only after a full accounting of the suffering and injustice apartheid had wrought. 
    This a model of emotional intelligence that is useful for everyone to think about and work on. Here are some Nelson Mandela quotes that illuminate a model for facing adversity with emotional intelligence:
    “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”  If we have to live alongside the people who did us wrong, as Mandela did, there is tremendous value in having the capacity to rise above the personal to whatever extent we are able. This can be a tall order when the perpetrators are people who not only are the cause of the problem but actively benefit from our losses. That is not to say that we simply bypass the pain that was caused or trust people who are demonstrably untrustworthy. Working through our personal hurt and anger when an injustice has been done to us - to tell the story honestly and face the facts - is necessary to emotional recovery.  At the same time, it may be impossible to avoid interacting with those who opposed us, in which case the more we can come from creativity and expansiveness the better chance we have of producing a different story that goes in a new direction. 
      An article in The Guardian provides an example of Mandela's approach to creating such a partnership which occurred upon his taking on the role of President of South Africa in in 1994. The day after his inauguration, walking into the office for the first time, he encountered John Reinders, an Afrikaner who had been chief of presidential protocol during the tenure both of the last white president, FW de Klerk, and his predecessor, PW Botha. In other words, a high-ranking person from the team that imprisoned him and oppressed his people. Reinders was packing up his things and heading off to a post of much lower status now that his party was out of power. The emotionally intelligent politician, Mandela persuaded Reinders to stay on. "You see, we people, we are from the bush," he said. "We do not know how to administer a body as complex as the presidency of South Africa. We need the help of experienced people such as yourself. I would ask you, please, to stay at your post. I intend only to serve for one presidential term and then, of course, you would be free to do as you wish." Reinders worked with Mandela for five years.
    The website Naiija2015 reports that "as president, Mandela summoned Percy Yutar, the prosecutor who had tried to have him hanged at the Rivonia trial, and gave him an official lunch. He sought out one of his old jailers, Jannie Roux, the former prison commissioner, and made him Ambassador to Austria." Change is catalyzed and visions realized through this very wise reframing of "us vs. them" that continues to transform South Africa and is a model for staying the course of our own personal transformation.

I always sought to defeat my opponents without dishonouring them."  Our triumph over enemies is what changes the game for the adversary. Nothing wrong with a little victory dance, but what Mandela demonstrated was that respect for the humanity of another person - even a powerful oppressor - is a more effective tool in the long game of change than getting even or shaming the wrong-doer. With Emotional Intelligence, we acquire mastery over the triggers to reactive behavior that remain long after an injury has occurred and the threat is passed. The effort to get to the roots of our pain and recover our strength develops the psychological strength for managing not only those same emotional waters in future situations but also recognizing the humanity of our adversaries. Their need for control and dominance may be a crazy story to anyone outside the twisted logic - like that of the South African government that produced a social system endowing power and unearned privilege to one race or group - but with emotional intelligence as a guide it is possible to recognize that story for what it is without alienating the people who believed in it, optimizing the chances we can bring them into a new narrative.

"Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again." Perhaps the most enduring example of emotional intelligence is Mandela's tenacity in the face of impossible odds. He started out "as a fiery young lawyer who battled South Africa’s dehumanising colour bar first by organising mass acts of defiance and later through armed resistance," reports the website "He lost case after case, despite dramatic but very brilliant performances in court." Staying the course despite such overwhelming odds does not mean denying or bypassing the difficult emotions. It is using anger and outrage for a positive purpose. What makes emotional intelligence such an important model for relationships is its emphasis on becoming aware of and gaining mastery over the sense of threat we experience when stressed or in conflict, particularly when we are actually under attack or oppressed. It is when we are being devalued or mistreated by the world that emotional intelligence is most critical, because whether the threat is perceived or a full-bodied reality it can trigger a full-blown amygdala hijacking which shuts down our capacity for long-range creative thinking capacities. 
And finally, emotional intelligence is about participating in the human story, which is, at the core, collaborating with other human beings to make life better. "I would like to be remembered as part of a team, and I would like my contribution to be assessed as somebody who carried out decisions taken by that collective," said Mandela. And so you shall.  
Jude Treder-Wolff is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Follow her on Twitter


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