Have you ever witnessed the metamorphosis of a Monarch butterfly from its chrysalis?
Before emerging from its cocoon, the young butterfly has a fat body with folded, limp wings. It is hardly an image of strength and beauty. In order to free itself from the chrysalis, it has to embark on a long struggle. As it stretches, pulls, and tremors, liquid from its body is pushed into the veins of its wings. Slowly the wings extend and grow, until finally a beautiful Monarch breaks free and flies away.
A life without difficulties is a classroom without lessons. None the less, very few of us undertake life-changing journeys without being forced to do so. Like the Monarch, our chrysalis is our comfort zone. Unless we accept the struggle that will allow us to break free from the security of our cocoons, we can never fly and become the master of our fate.
"People need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development," explains Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Adversity builds character and the challenges we face teach us resourcefulness, self-reliance and courage. “In rising to the challenge, we reveal our hidden capabilities. This, in turn, changes our self-concept: we realize we are much stronger than we once thought,” writes Haidt.
As uncomfortable as today’s economic situation is for many people, it is a great opportunity to break free from our routine habits and discover resources and abilities within ourselves that we didn’t know existed. Indeed, most of us have potentialities that have never been developed, simply because of the circumstances of ours lives never called them forth.
In my own opinion, no one embodies this idea better than Nelson Mandela, the anti-Apartheid activist and the first South African president to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. In 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment at Robben Island. The 27 years that followed were characterized by physical, spiritual and emotional challenges.
“Ultimately, the key to understanding Mandela is those 27 years in prison. The man who walked onto Robben Island in 1964 was emotional, headstrong, easily stung. The man who emerged was balanced and disciplined,” writes Richard Stengel in Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership.
It is our attitude that determines whether we benefit from misfortune or not. Mandela could have fallen into depression and despair; instead he chose to rely on his strengths and spent 27 years preparing himself for his life's purpose, which was to put an end to Apartheid and to create a non-racial democratic South Africa.
“Respect, ordinary respect”
One of the ways Mandela worked toward this goal while in prison was to make a connection with the prison guards by showing them “respect, ordinary respect,” says Walter Sisulu, an African National Congress (ANC) activist, who was interviewed for John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy.
While imprisoned, Mandela refused to defer to the guards by calling them baas, meaning boss or master. Instead, he was determined to persuade them to treat him with respect and understood that the best way to earn respect is to give respect. This strategy contradicts our natural tendency to respect others on a conditional basis, when they meet our expectations and behave according to our own values and belief system.
In a most brutal and hellish place, and while confronting and standing up to his oppressors, Mandela always kept his cool and polite demeanor, despite the poor treatment he received on a daily basis.
Of course, that didn’t mean that he failed to stand up assertively for his rights when the situation required it. However, he didn’t want to crush nor humiliate his enemies; he simply wanted them to treat him with dignity and respect. He also knew that the best way to achieve that goal was to behave in a respectful manner himself.
That key strength, respecting his opponents, taught Mandela to wield power without humiliating his enemies and would serve him well in the years to come.
“Don’t address their brains, address their hearts”
Mandela’s focus on respect and the right to be treated with dignity, compelled him to learn and understand the Afrikaner mentality, their history and their language, despite it being seen as the "the oppressor's tongue" by many black South Africans.
He greeted the prison guards in Afrikaans and took every opportunity to speak with them in their own language. The fact that he went out of his way to study and understand their culture won over many white Africans.
While in prison, Mandela also learned that one of the shortest ways to the white South African's heart was through their beloved game of rugby. Though the game was seen as the representation of white culture, Mandela believed that rugby could play an important role in bridging the great divide between white and black South Africans.
"Don't address their brains. Address their hearts," was Mandela's answer to the challenge of reconciling white fears with black aspirations, and central to this strategy was the use of rugby as an instrument of reconciliation as well as an instrument of political persuasion.
A single rugby game to heal three centuries of racial division
During Apartheid, the ANC had encouraged an international boycott of South African rugby. “Preventing us from playing rugby with the rest of the world turned out to be a hugely successful lever of political influence,” says South African ex-security chief Niel Barnard in Carlin’s book.
But at a time when many blacks dismissed rugby as “the brutish, alien pastime of a brutish, alien people,” Nelson Mandela saw it as the perfect opportunity to unite a racially divided country through sport.
With this purpose in mind, Mandela agreed to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, and then undertook to transform black South Africans into fans of Springboks, the South African rugby team. Thanks to his personal charisma and innovative approach, the Springboks enjoyed an unprecedented level of popular support among black South Africans. Indeed, the home team defeated New Zealand’s All Blacks in the World Cup final, one of the greatest moments in South Africa's sporting history, and a watershed moment in the post-Apartheid nation-building process.
"Up to now," Mandela said, "rugby has been the application of Apartheid in the sports field. But now things are changing, we must use sport for the purpose of nation-building and promoting all the ideas we think will lead to peace and stability in the country."
Faith can move mountains; Life is really what you make of it.
“The world is an incomparable classroom, and life is a memorable teacher for those who are not afraid of her,” writes John Gardner in his book Self Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society.
When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, he could have complained about losing his freedom or simply given up on life. Instead, he focused on his strengths and on what could be learned from each incident and situation. He overcame the challenge of a 27-year imprisonment and then went on to change the world using what he had learned during that time.
While Mandela’s recent hospitalization has sparked many discussions about his legacy, I personally look at this dramatic life story as an inspiration and an amazing embodiment of what we can do when we rely on our strengths. Despite the adversity that life might throw our way, we can all become “the master of our life, the captain of our soul”.
Karin Genton-L’Epée is a business coach with 31 years of extensive professional experience in the United States, France and the Czech Republic. Based in Prague since 1995, for the past 15 years she has developed a range of coaching and training programs for mid- and top-level managers, focusing on leadership development, cross-cultural understanding and effective communication in a global environment. By providing a structured environment that supports people in clarifying who they are and what they want, Karin enables her clients to devise more effective strategies to achieve their personal and professional goals. Thanks to her knowledge, skills and range of international experience, Karin is in demand as a speaker at business conferences and educational institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. She is also a regular contributor to business journals and magazines. She works in English and French and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.