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Should you Lead from the Front or Front as a Lead?


'I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.' 

There is this extraordinary scene in the movie Invictus, where Nelson Mandela, the newly elected black President of South Africa, recites these final lines of a Victorian era poem (titled Invictus) to Francois Pienaar, the captain of South Africa's (predominantly white) Rugby team. 

Rugby in South Africa in 1995 when this meeting takes place, is an exclusively white man's sport and closely identified with all the evils of apartheid. Mandela of course knows this. But he has an idea that is so outrageous that only a leader with an extraordinary vision can even contemplate it. He has invited Pienaar to his office so they can work together to use the Rugby World Cup and emotionally bridge the gap between all South Africans, regardless of race. 

Mandela tells him: 'On Robben Island, these lines, they helped me stand, when all I wanted to do was lie down.' These words, he explains had given him the strength and conviction to rise above the physical confines of those prison walls that had surrounded him for over two decades, and eventually set out on a mission to lead his nation away from a bleak future of violence and destruction, to one that was far more peaceful and filled with hope and possibilities. 

Over the next few months they would work closely together to bring the plan to fruition. Despite the punishing training schedule, Pienaar ensured the team regularly visited the poorest black townships, played with the kids, and taught them to understand and love the sport they had always known as the face of apartheid. Mandela would phone him up regularly to check on the team. 'It would be Madiba, wanting to chat to me, to find out what's happening. Is the team focused? Are they OK? Are the guys cool?' Slowly but surely, as the World Cup approached, the populace was drawn into the narrative weaved by Mandela, and simultaneously the team bought into the inclusivity pioneered by Pienaar. 

On 24th June 1995 the eyes of the world were on Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. Facing up to the mighty All Blacks of New Zealand in the final of the World Cup, was unlikely opponent South Africa. With the teams lined up before the game, Nelson Mandela strode out to the middle. Instead of his normal attire, on him was a green and gold Springboks jersey and cap. The long-sleeve green rugby jersey was untucked and buttoned right up to the top, in a style all his own. On the back, a gold No.6 (Pienaar's number), stood out prominently in big and bold font. The whole stadium, 65,000 people, 99% of them white South African, stood up and chanted: "Nelson ! Nelson ! Nelson !" 

'Not in my wildest dreams did I think that Nelson Mandela would pitch up at the final wearing a Springbok on his heart,' Pienaar would say later. 'When he walked into our changing room to say good luck to us, he turned around and my number was on his back. It was just an amazing feeling.' It was all the inspiration the Springboks needed. South Africa took the match into extra time and won 15-12 against all odds against the greatest Rugby side in the history of the sport. 

The efforts of Mandela and Pienaar in the months leading up to the World Cup and the drama of the final went a long way in fast tracking the healing that Nelson Mandela sought as he put together a fractured nation. Their actions in fact provide an inspirational lesson in leadership beyond just the visioning. The duo showed that flexibility and adaptability to situations is the key to leadership. As a leader you must always be visible to the team, the opposition, and the supporters, but you don't necessarily need to lead from the front in all situations. Sometimes you can front for the lead, as Mandela did with Pienaar at the start of the final. In switching leadership roles to ensure a South African victory, they demonstrated, in no uncertain manner, that High Performance is a team game. 

As leaders in business, making this transition as per the demands of the situation, is critical to sustainable mission success. Sometimes, even for born leaders who compulsively lead from the front, it makes sense to stay visible, but step back from actual decision making, while they empower the team leader to run the show without micromanaging. When things go wrong, this is even more important.

'A crucial element of success in this case is radiating positivity. My job is to drive away fear,” says Esquel's CEO Marjorie Yang. “Fear is the worst enemy of any business….As a leader, my job is to maintain...and radiate confidence.' Herbert Hainer, CEO of Adidas for 16-years puts this truly in perspective when he says: 'It doesn’t matter how difficult times are, there is always a world after a crisis. Even if the situation looks bleak, believe in yourself and your people and maintain a positive attitude.' 

Mandela and Pienaar did, and it helped them win a World Cup and begin the process of healing a fractured nation. Our challenges as leaders are usually less daunting and the outcome not quite so dramatic. But whether we lead from the front, or front for the lead at the appropriate moments, may well determine the ultimate impact we make on our business, on our people, on our future. 

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