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.
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.
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.
"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 Niija.com. "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.