“At your greatest moment, be careful, that’s when the Devil comes for you.” This was the caution Academy-Award Winning Actor Denzel Washington gave to Actor Will Smith minutes after Will shocked the world (and himself) by upstaging the biggest night of Hollywood with a single act of insane indiscipline otherwise known as “the slap heard round the world”.
As a result of that angry outburst Will Smith tarnished what should have been the greatest night of his career, lost millions of fans, will probably lose millions of dollars in fines, fees and lost future earnings, resigned from the Academy, and has significantly diluted his influence (ie, his capacity to lead) in Hollywood and the world. If only Denzel had given that advice to Will before the start of the Oscars!
Dear African Leader, please accept this article as your advice before your greatest night or event.
On June 21, 1990, barely five months after being released from prison, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was interviewed in a Town Hall Meeting moderated by Ted Koppel of ABC News. Ted Koppel was known as one of the toughest and most respected TV reporters and interviewers at that time in the USA. His ABC news show, ‘Nightline’, was one of the top rated late night programs on television. The meeting was aired to millions of viewers live, and decades later, continues to generate millions of views on YouTube. During the interview, Mandela was asked deliberating provoking and borderline-disrespectful questions like:
“I was just wondering, are these your models of leaders of human rights, and if so would you want a Gaddafi or an Arafat or a Castro to be a future president of South Africa?”
“What can assure me as a human being and a concerned African American that the ANC will indeed have a fiscal, solvent policy that will continue the use of the resources of South Africa in a meaningful way? …will your economy be based on the Marxist system, socialism or capitalism?”
He was also asked to respond to racist and unfair statements like this from a white South African businessman:
“I’m a South African. I’m an Afrikaner. I want self-determination for my people in a part of South Africa. You can’t have the whole South Africa for yourself. A part of it belongs to my people. Nelson, you’re not going to nationalize the essence of the white people. I have worked for my banks, my mines, my businesses, and my farms. You are not going to take it. Stop your violence. Stop your sanction campaign. Stop your nonsense. Leave the violent campaign alone. Come and sit down. Become a normal person and talk, and maybe that way we can find solutions.”
Here was Mandela, a man who had been unjustly robbed of the most fruitful years of his life, robbed of meaningful relationships with his wife and children, beaten, spat on, threatened, and branded a terrorist by the same people that were now interviewing him; barely five months after having endured this for twenty-seven years, he was being subjected to this kind of questioning on international TV in front of millions of viewers. If anyone had the right to have an angry outburst in front of millions, Mandela did. If anyone had the right to get up and slap the host/moderator, Mandela did.
And yet he did not.
Not only did Mandela demonstrate an amazing level of self-awareness and self-control, he responded to the provocative questions in a manner that left the people feeling valued and respected, even though he communicated clearly to them that he did not agree with them. He empathized with his tormentors, and motivated himself to respond to questions from people when he could have justifiably refused to answer or said “no comment”.
This interview was a masterclass in emotional intelligence delivered by Nelson Mandela. As a result of the interview, Mandela gained many supporters, and significantly increased his influence (ie, his capacity to lead) on millions of people around the world. He was no longer just a freedom fighter who had been unjustly imprisoned and therefore deserved sympathy.
He became a statesman whose words carried the import of global change, and despite spending only five years as President of South Africa (1994 – 1999), he was universally recognized as the statesman of the world. At his funeral, more than more than 500 VIP dignitaries from 19 supranational organizations and approximately 190 countries came to pay their respects for a man whose leadership not only changed South Africa for the better, but also changed the world.
Emotions are human. Humans are filled with emotions. Emotions are neither right nor wrong, nor do their presence indicate a flaw in character in any of us. Whether it is anger, lust, fear, shame, happiness, excitement, sorrow, or pride, emotions are part of who we are. Yet as leaders (a.k.a. people who influence ourselves and others to achieve common goals and objectives) emotions can be a double-edged sword. They can be used to galvanize positive action and they can also be used to destroy progress. They can be used to bring people together to address a common issue and they can be used to drive people apart.
I once attended a high level ministerial meeting for a project that involved a government minister, deputy minister and a World Bank Consultant and several department heads. It was a planning meeting convened by the Minister for an inaugural edition of an annual event that World Bank was supporting and the project required the expenditure of significant amounts of money.
Both the Minister and Deputy-Minister were visibly frustrated with what they perceived as the lack of control that they were given on how the funds would be disbursed. In response to their frustration, the Consultant explained the process and the necessity for the checks and balances instituted in the process.
In the middle of the explanation, the Deputy-Minister interrupted with a “This is nonsense! You think we don’t know what is going on? Next year, we will not allow this kind of bull**** process!” The Minister chimed in with a similar but longer rant that communicated the same level of anger. After they were finished, the room went quiet, as embarrassed Directors suddenly buried themselves into reading their notes while the Consultant sat quietly and said nothing.
After what felt like a decade of silence, one of the Directors finally broke it, changing the subject by highlighting one of the positive areas of progress in the project and the conversation in the room moved on, albeit under a cloud. Interestingly enough, neither the Minister nor the Deputy-Minister were in the same position a year later when the event was due to be held; the event was not held again for the next two years.
As a leader, you will be faced with situations in which your emotions tempt you to act or speak in a certain manner. As a leader, it is important to be aware that you are always being watched, always under the microscope, always influencing others by what you say and do.
Therefore, your words, expressions and actions speak volumes and cannot be subjected to the whims of your emotions. The fact that your subordinate has failed to deliver on a simple task that you both agreed upon and showed up at a meeting unprepared – which makes you angry – does not mean that the optimal decision is to berate him/her in front of everyone at the meeting.
The fact that a taxi driver cut you off while you were driving home after a long day and swiped your car, causing a US$2000 dent in the car does not mean that the optimal decision after you get out of the car is to slap him for being stupid and careless. The fact that your colleague double-crosses you at a Board meeting and speaks or votes against a proposal that you are supporting does not mean that the optimal decision is to bang on the table and/or call her/him a two-faced liar. Angry outbursts will cause you pain and regret and will diminish your leadership capacity.
So, what can you do to eliminate your angry outbursts? There are many strategies for this, and here are my three favorites:
- Ask yourself “Why”. In the moment that you are about to have the angry outburst, ask yourself why you want to take that action. Have the conversation with yourself. Encourage yourself to answer that question to yourself. Invariably, the first answer will not satisfy you, because you know that you have just told a half-truth to yourself. Ask again, and encourage yourself to tell yourself the truth. For example, if Will Smith had asked himself why he wanted to go up and slap Christ Rock, the first answer may have been “because he disrespected my wife”. But as many of us suspect, there is a deeper reason why he wanted to do this. If he demanded of himself the deeper reason, the answer would have calmed him down and helped him to realize that the problem was with himself first, and would not be solved by an external action. The beauty of this strategy is that while you can try to lie to yourself, you know when you are lying. Demand the truth of yourself in that moment. The exercise will be painful, but less painful than the aftermath of the outburst.
- List the names of ten people you are serving. Leadership is influence, and it is a service that leaders provide to those whom they influence. Every leader has at least ten people that they influence. This may include your subordinates, colleagues, bosses, shareholders, customers, suppliers, children, friends, and family. All of them depend on you to serve them with good leadership. You have a choice whether or not to serve them with good or bad leadership. In the moment when you are feeling frustrated or ready to pounce, list the names of ten people whom you are serving with your leadership. Just list their names, and as you list their names the unspoken question that will come to you is how well does this action serve them? I have personally been faced with the road rage quandary and it has been the image of my co-workers hearing about me getting into a fight with a taxi driver that has served to calm me down in milliseconds as I imagine that horror on their face when they hear that I beat up a taxi driver (and that’s assuming I don’t get beat up by the taxi driver, which would be even worse horror and shame!)
- Sometimes, we all need divine help, guidance, and wisdom. Whatever your spiritual beliefs are, leverage them to ask for help in this moment. This is a defining moment in your leadership, and your decision when your emotions are at their peak will have far greater influence than what you may do for the next year or two. Like Smith and Mandela, you have to make a choice when faced with these moments of extreme emotion, especially when they are justified. Say a prayer. Ask whatever being you believe in to help you navigate this moment. We all have to ask for help sometimes; in that moment, which can happen in seconds, ask for help to the One who is always available.
As the world becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, the probability that a leader can achieve her/his objectives utilizing only resources within her/his control is effectively zero. Every leader has to be able to inspire and motivate people who can live just fine without that leader to invest their time, talents, and treasure into the vision of what the leader is called to achieve during her/his tenure in an organization.
Whether your organization is a big as the government of South Africa or Dangote or Ethiopian Airlines, or as small as a classroom, a local community, or a family, steering them to achieve the vision that you know in your heart you want to achieve will require people within and outside your organization to trust in your decision-making enough to invest their time, talents and treasure. And some of them may not depend on you for their income, shelter, or survival. In these situations, which all African leaders face, we can enhance our ability to achieve our goals by demonstrating the emotional intelligence of Nelson Mandela and eliminating angry outbursts.