Long Walk to Freedom – The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
I first read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography as a source of cultural context to help prepare me to live and work in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1996. I never dreamed that I would bear witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Cape Town or stand in a field in Soweto holding my breath as President Mandela signed the new constitution into law. The extraordinary opportunity to be present for the birth a new nation has altered the course of my life and inspired a lifetime exploration of leadership and social change.
Now, nearly 20 years later, as we seek to build a powerful movement to end violence against girls and women, I recently re-read A Long Walk to Freedom as a study on transformative leadership, movement building and strategy.
I am incredibly grateful for the precious opportunity this book offers to learn from the strategic choices that Mandela and the other leaders of the ANC made over the course of their long fight for freedom. From the strikes, to sending leaders underground and abroad, to preparing for war, to negotiating for peace, this book is a rich study on keeping one’s eye on the long term vision, while adapting to the changing circumstances.
But my favorite thing about this book is how President Mandela reflects back on the forces that shaped his life and his own evolution as a leader, over a lifetime. Most striking, is the transformation he describes during his 27 years in prison. A transformation that liberated his soul and spirit from oppression even as he remained locked inside a cell so small both his head and feet touched the walls as he slept. Mandela emerged an extraordinary leader, with clarity about his own purpose and a moral certitude about what would be necessary to achieve the ultimate goal.
From this vantage point, President Mandela shares his extraordinary perspective on what it will take to create the kind of world we seek, including who we must be as leaders and how we must engage each other in the effort.
I’ll leave you with two of my favorite quotes from the book and encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading this book and finding your own.
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”