Doing The Inspired Thing

How does a leader do the inspired thing – act or do exactly what the situation requires at the given moment, especially when it is a tense moment. Let me illustrate.

What did Former Pres Mandela do during the 1995 world cup that he is so famously known for? He put on a no 6 top (the Captain Francois Pienaar’s number) and arrived at the opening game with it on. Long before this symbolic act he called Francois Pienaar to his office and appealed to his leadership to try and win the world cup because it would contribute hugely to unity in South Africa.

When the ANC National Executive voted to do away with the Springbok Emblem, he took his motorcade to that meeting and sold the big picture to them, appealing to the NEC to re-vote, not to do away with the Springbok Emblem.

When Black SA wanted to go to war, he addressed the nation on television, asking them to continue following him towards the goal of unity.

Great leaders catch the spirit of the quote by Martin Luther King jnr: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”.

Let me add, if someone is vindictive, rude, unreasonable, negative, offensive, unfair, or whatever, the answer is mostly not to be the same back to them – to not try and change them with the same behaviour.

King’s quote touches on a ‘higher law of leadership’ –

the solution to a sensitive and highly flammable situation often lies in doing the opposite of what is expected and even perceived as normal or natural”.

Then, after attempting to apply this higher law, and being unsuccessful, it is time to act tough, which could mean disciplining, a stern warning, punishment and even going to war.

Again, former president Nelson Mandela showed the way. Instead of returning hate for hate he exited prison with understanding, patience and forgiveness.

I am convinced that even Mandela did not always apply this higher law, because leaders are human and it is therefore very difficult to do so consistently. Fortunately he seems to have done so when it mattered most.

A Few years ago in the US a 32-year old milk truck driver stormed into an Amish school without any provocation, released the boys and adults, and tied up 10 girls. He shot the girls, killing five and wounding five. Then he took his own life.

As James E Faust explained in a talk, “This shocking violence caused great anguish among the Amish but no anger. There was hurt but no hate. Their forgiveness was immediate. Collectively they began to reach out to the milkman’s suffering family. As the milkman’s family gathered in his home the day after the shootings, an Amish neighbour came over, wrapped his arms around the father of the dead gunman, and said: “We will forgive you.” Amish leaders visited the milkman’s wife and children to extend their sympathy, their forgiveness, their help and their love. About half of the mourners at the milkman’s funeral were Amish. In turn, the Amish invited the milkman’s family to attend the funeral services of the girls who had been killed. A remarkable peace settled on the Amish as their faith sustained them during this crisis.

The Amish people applied this higher law of leadership. They did what was most difficult and opposite to a natural response of anger, hate and resentment.

In a leadership conversation with a fairly senior black leader recently he referred to a sensitive situation in which a white older Afrikaans-speaking subordinate clearly undermined him. His natural response was to want to discipline the man and show him who was boss. Not wrong, but also not the higher law. We discussed the higher law and he applied it excellently with a remarkable result. Their relationship improved dramatically and the employee performed better than before.

Fast forward to 2015, in SA.

As I recently wrote in my Business Report article, on the day that students marched to Luthuli House, what could Secretary General of the ANC Gwede Mantashe have done? He could have stepped out of the building on the same level as the youngsters and proactively suggested they sit down to discuss matters eye to eye. He could even have had comfortable chairs ready and waiting. This pro-active stance and symbol of humility…and strength…would have disarmed the crowd and won them over immediately. Apparently this is what Vice Chancellors across the country did – when students asked them to sit down they did.

What could President Zuma have done had he been in tune with the higher law of leadership? He could have sat waiting for the students, until they all arrived. And then, at the right moment make his bold announcement, with the education and student leaders flanking him, raising their hands as a token of solidarity, as Nelson Mandela raised F.W. De Klerk and Thabo Mbeki’s hands into the air. And then he could have gone down and shaken some hands, looked the students in the eyes.

In South Africa today we pay too much lip service to Mandela as a great leader with too little exemplification of what he did. If only this could change.

What must be in place for a leader to do such inspirational things, to apply this higher law of leadership?

  • Passion for what they are doing
  • A deep connection with the cause
  • Clarity of the big picture
  • A remarkable sense of what is right
  • Courage to do the unexpected
  • The confidence to listen and act on that prompting, that quiet voice
  • Years of discipline, thinking and pondering
  • Absolute clarity and belief in a set of simple principles/values
  • Authenticity
  • The leader must be in touch with their constituency
  • Surrounded with good advisors
  • Humility
  • A culture that encourages this kind of behaviour
  • Good solid hard work
  • And more…

The higher law of leadership almost always lifts a difficult, sensitive, threatening or tense situation to another level of higher purpose, deeper unity, more energy and continued success.

Listen to a conversation with Kevin Hedderwick, from Famous Brands, on on being inspired as a leader here

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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