(Illustration by Paul Rodgers)
The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader—the system leader, a person who catalyzes collective leadership.
By Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania Winter 2015
Magazine Extras (Winter 2015)
With the passing of Nelson Mandela in late 2013, the world celebrated a remarkable life. But the spotlight on Mandela’s accomplishments relegated to the shadows much of the reason that he has had such a lasting impact, in South Africa and beyond. Above all, Mandela embodied a system leader, someone able to bring forth collective leadership. In countless ways, large and small, he undertook interventions aimed at bringing together the remnants of a divided country to face their common challenges collectively and build a new nation.
In the four delicate years between Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and the first open election, he supported a scenario process that brought together the formerly banned black political parties to work through their alternative visions for the future of South Africa. Exploring their different ideologies and their implications openly and together resulted in the moderating of potentially divisive differences that could have ripped the nation apart, such as whether or not to nationalize critical industries.1
Perhaps the most transcendent example of Mandela as a system leader was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a radical innovation in the emotional healing of the country that brought black and white South Africans together to confront the past and join in shaping the future. The simple idea that you could bring together those who had suffered profound losses with those whose actions led to those losses, to face one another, tell their truths, forgive, and move on, was not only a profound gesture of civilization but also a cauldron for creating collective leadership. Indeed, the process would have been impossible without the leadership of people like Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President F. W. de Klerk.