Sweet are the uses of adversity

Prague Leaders Magazine, March 2009

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 and folded, limp wings. It is hardly an image of strength and beauty. And it cannot free itself from the chrysalis without a long struggle. As it stretches, pulls, and shakes with tremors, liquid from its body is pushed into the veins of its wings. Slowly the wings extend and grow steady until finally, a beautiful Monarch breaks free and flies away.

A life without difficulties is a classroom without lessons, yet very few people undertake a life-changing journey without being forced to do so. Like the Monarch, our chrysalis is our comfort zone. And unless we accept the struggle and break free from the security of our cocoons, we can never fly.

“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 comfortable habits and discover resources and abilities within ourselves that we didn’t know exist. 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 better than Nelson Mandela, the anti-Apartheid activist and the first President of South Africa to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. In 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Robben Island prison. 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 purpose, which was to put an end to Apartheid and 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 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.

His dramatic life story has inspired the world and teaches us that by relying on our strengths, we can all achieve something greater than ourselves, despite the adversity that life might throw our way.