As I write this article, Mandela is on life-support. Maybe he will have passed on by the time you read it. However, his generosity of spirit has influenced, and will profoundly influence, for many generations. In his honour I’d like to share a story.
It was a hot Monday afternoon in June 2007. Gazing up at me expectantly was a sea of ebony-black faces – over 1,000 graduating students of Covenant University, located on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria.
I’d been invited there in my role as 2006-2007 World President of the Global Speakers Federation (the body that serves all the national professional speaking associations of the world.) With me was my friend Lenora Billings-Harris, a diversity specialist and at the time the first Black American President of the National Speakers Association US, the largest of our 10 member nations.
I’d pondered long and hard about how to start my speech. What meaningful connection could I, a middle-aged white woman from privileged New Zealand, share with these knowledge-hungry young people.
After all, our lives were incredibly different. Very little of their daily experience was my daily experience.
In our privileged lives we live with plenty. We live with the backstop of social security. We live with ease, reliable infrastructure, and a large degree of comfort. These beautiful young people and their families, however, live with daily chaos, poverty and economic turmoil. And these future leaders of their country were about to hit the job market.
They’d had a great education at Covenant. They were hungry to learn more. Anything to do with my own topic of time management would probably be useful. But I wanted to share something that would link at a more profound level, that would stay in their hearts as they moved into positions of responsibility and ultimately, leadership.
So what could I say that would make a difference?
And then inspiration struck. One of the things Lenora and I had quickly noticed was the (to us) unnatural subservience accorded their leaders. It wasn’t hard to see how such societies are easy targets for corrupt leaders who seek power in order to suck the system dry. Such ‘leadership’ is the curse of many resource-rich but starving African nations.
As a professional speaker I’ve learnt well the power of a great story. Done skilfully it slides past the conscious mind and questioning brain into the hearts of the listeners. Done skilfully it packs a message a thousand times more powerful than any PowerPoint slide loaded with erudite information. And so I began with a story.
“It was 1995 and Auckland was preparing for a CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting). My daughter Catherine was a university student at the time. To fund her studies she also worked on the banquets team of what was then known as the Regent, at the time the premier Auckland hotel. It was the location of most of the really significant CHOGM events.
“She came home one night, bursting to tell about that day’s experience.
“We had a huge function today. Everyone who’s anyone in the Commonwealth was there – all manner of Very Important People. There was lots of ‘please notice me – I’m important in my country’ behaviour. These people had no idea how obvious they were. The irony was, those same people, so hungry for attention, treated the hotel staff as though we were invisible. They snapped orders, were rude and unpleasant to serve.
“However, two people stepped aside from the crowds of people jockeying to make an impression. These two people came over to the staff as we were lined up, waiting to begin serving the meal. They asked our names, what we were studying [as with many hotels, almost all the banquet staff were students], and what future careers we have planned. Not only did they ask questions, but they also listened and talked with us as equals.
“Guess who they were?
“The Queen of England – and – Nelson Mandela.”
I’ll never know what impact that story had on my Lagos audience. I do know, however, that the young people at the Regent that night were profoundly moved.