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Leadership: How Small Courtesies Help

by Tom O'Connor on December 17th, 2013
Gandhi & Mandela spotlight simple good manners as a key leadership trait

Gandhi & Mandela spotlight simple good manners as a key leadership trait

The recent TV coverage of Nelson Mandela’s passing brings to mind similar scenes from the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi – powerfully depicted in Richard Attenborough’s landmark biographical movie from 1982. 

In particular, the words from Edward R. Morrow that Attenborough uses as voiceover to the funeral could just as easily fit in describing Mandela: 

“Mahatma Gandhi ….could not boast any scientific achievement or artistic gift. Yet men, governments and dignitaries from all over the world have joined hands today to pay homage to this little brown man … who led his country to freedom. In the words of General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State, “Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind. He was a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires.” And Albert Einstein added, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a man as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” 

President Obama’s words from the Soweto memorial service for Mandela draw a similar parallel: 

Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement – a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. 

But of more interest to leadership scholars is the even closer similarity seen in the leadership style shared by Gandhi & Mandela. 

This can be readily appreciated from viewing their respective stories on-screen – as told by Attenborough’s Gandhi & (in the case of Mandela) by Clint Eastwood’s 2009 movie, Invictus. 

One trait that stands out for particular attention is how courteous & respectful of others each of them were. 

Both were imbued with impeccable good manners & thoughfulness of others – liberally dispensing pleasantries & understanding to their associates and rivals, in equal measure. 

Eastwood’s Invictus is replete with examples: 

1. Mandela’s insistance in memorizing the names of the Springbok team from a team picture – so that he may acknowledge each individual player by name during the pre-game ceremony. 

2. The comment from Mandela’s bodyguard, Hendrick, when the Springbok captain, Francois Pinaar, asks him what’s Mandela like: “When I worked for the previous President, it was my job to be invisible. This President … he found out I like English toffee and brought me some back, from his visit to the Queen. To him, nobody is invisible.” 

3. Mandela taking the time to introduce his tea-attendant to Pinaar & then proceeding himself to serve Pinaar personally, pouring the tea, adding the milk, spooning the sugar. 

4. Taking time to inquire about the wellbeing of others – asking Pinaar how was his ankle & asking one of his bodyguards how was his mother. 

Attenborough’s Gandhi equally portrays its hero as being immensely considerate of others. Some memorable examples include: 

1. When the New York Times reporter, Vince Walker, visits him in South Africa, Gandhi insists in having an extra place set at the table for Walker’s driver. 

2. Twice Gandhi is seen to interrupt important meetings with Nehru & others to care for his animals; once to offer the peelings from the fruit they were eating to the nearby goats and a second time to go and make a mud-pack for one of these goats who had become lame. 

3. At another of these high-level meetings with Ginnah, Nehru, Patel & others, we see Gandhi take the tea tray from the waiter and walk it around to each of his colleagues to serve them individually.  

These small vignettes from both movies are obviously intended to give an insight into the character of their respective hereos – or, as Attenborough’s himself puts it: 

“No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling …. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and to try to find one’s way to the heart of the man”.  

In this, both Attenborough & Eastwood score top marks.

PS1. For related Torc articles, please click on the following links: 
1. Personality Type: Nelson Mandela
2. Learning From The Movies
3. Trapattoni: some lessons in management
4. Flow, Mojo & Drive
5. The Leader as Teacher
6. Management: Machiavellian Style
7. Leadership: Ready, Aim, Fire  
8. How To Rebuild Group Morale

PS2. For related Torc training programmes, please click on the following links:
1. Leading with Emotional Intelligence
2. Leading with Resilience & Optimism
3. Leading with Teamwork & Collaboration
4. Leading with Influence & Persuasion
5. Leading with Empathy & Listening
6. Leading with Innovation & Creativity
7. The Leader as Teacher

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