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An Introvert as Activist (II)
Introverted activists who successfully agitated for social change include Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony – and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013), South Africa’s first fully democratically elected president, had a moral stature that continues to reverberate for people around the world. Over his historic lifetime, which included 27 years of imprisonment, personal qualities emerged that are rare among world leaders and indeed among human beings in general. His gentle dignity and commitment to unvengeful equality disarmed his opponents and inspired freedom lovers everywhere. Actor Morgan Freeman, who played Mandela in the 2009 film Invictus, said “When you meet Mandela, you know you are in the presence of greatness. It is something that just emanates from him.”
In childhood, Mandela was raised with the expectation that he would become a counselor to the king of his tribe. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela noted that as a boy he was introverted and had such a serious mien that friends nicknamed him “Grandpa.” He also noted that his birth name, Rolihlahla, in Xhosa meant “troublemaker.” While he embraced every precious opportunity to further his education, eventually attaining a law degree, he also absorbed awareness of how oppressed his people were and became more and more politically active.
In 1948, South Africa formalized its policy of apartheid, extending the reach of white supremacy in the majority Black country. Non-whites were required to carry identification papers at all times and could enter white cities only during working hours. Segregation reigned everywhere, including beaches, hospitals and schools. Mandela joined forces with other activists against apartheid in the African National Congress (ANC). For a number of years he held onto a philosophy of nonviolent protests, but when that didn’t bring about a recognition of Blacks’ human rights, he agreed with an escalation to campaigns of sabotage. Eventually he and other ANC activists were arrested and charged with treason. Mandela received a sentence of life imprisonment.
As Mandela’s detention in harsh conditions stretched to one decade, then two and almost to three, his principled opposition to the injustice of apartheid helped rally worldwide support for his vision of a non-racial democracy in his country. When he was finally freed to the cheers of enormous crowds everywhere he went, the adulation did not go to his head. When he was inaugurated as the first president of post-apartheid South Africa and fêted for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he remained the same statesman who radiated a calm lack of ego. He regarded the honors as a victory for his cause rather than a personal triumph. Even more remarkable, he harbored no bitterness against his previous opponents. “Hating clouds the mind,” he explained. “It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.”
Reading through Mandela’s autobiography and some reminiscences by people who knew him well, I spotted several interesting points about his personality as an introvert.
First, many people described Mandela as a superb listener. He paid close attention to what others said, respecting their point of view and responding only after he had taken in their information and pondered it. Listening seems to have been a key component of his emotional intelligence and leadership style. This habit often shows up as an introvert strength because introverts don’t need to dominate conversations or cultivate a pre-determined image. Mandela also credited this to his tribal background, which taught that a chief “stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing they are being led from behind.” When put together with his practice of treating all human beings with dignity, Mandela’s listening increased his empathy and effectiveness.
Second, because Mandela had the ability, shared by many introverts, to hang back, rather than constantly assert himself, he was able to choose courses of action strategically, so that he lived his principles and stayed on track toward his ultimate goal of a South Africa with freedom for all. I was extremely impressed to learn that Mandela refused six opportunities to go free from imprisonment if only he would unconditionally renounce violence. To him the sticking point there was that the South African government was not likewise promising to renounce violence. His personal freedom mattered less to him as a factor in his decisions than the thoroughgoing moral changes he had resolved to bring about.
Third, his introvert-fueled ability to hang back and put ego aside contributed to his personal security during several years when he was on the run from the authorities. When traveling around with whites on ANC business, he would pose as the group’s chauffeur and thereby become socially invisible. “When underground I did not walk as tall or stand as straight. I spoke more softly, with less clarity and distinction. I was more passive, more unobtrusive; I did not ask for things, but instead let people tell me what to do,” he said in explaining his ability to fade away in plain sight. Other activists might not have felt comfortable playing that role, but introverts tend not to mind becoming part of the background. He even got a kick out of his reputation as the elusive “Black Pimpernel” around that time.
Fourth, even when prison authorities limited Mandela’s ability to communicate with the outside world, he used ingenuity and strategic communication to send written messages to important international figures who helped raise the global temperature around apartheid and his continued imprisonment. Interestingly, both Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale similarly used written correspondence with high-placed people to marshal support for their respective causes, although in their cases the constraint was not imprisonment but chronic illness and a preference to stay in one place.
Fifth, Mandela had attitudes about privacy and self-disclosure that match what I’ve observed in other introverts. In his autobiography he candidly described his feelings about his wife Winnie, his children and many of the authorities of various sorts with whom he had to negotiate. But after his release from prison, he noted that journalists’ questions about his emotions took him aback. “I found their curiosity difficult to satisfy,” he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom (which became an international bestseller). “I am not and never have been a man who finds it easy to talk about his feelings in public.” To an introvert, writing personal matters in a book is several orders of magnitude more comfortable than sharing similar thoughts to a TV reporter.
Finally, in last week’s post I wrote about the harm of pretending, something Mandela recognized. Jessie Duarte, who for four years served as his personal assistant, brought up this issue in reference to the outfits Mandela would or would not agree to wear. When some image consultants were recommending what he should wear for television appearances, Mandela shook off their suggestions. Three-piece suits, he said, “belonged to the colonial era, when people were judged by what they wore, rather than who they were. I want to dress like a man who is living in Africa, because that's where I live.”
Duarte commented, “He is not a pretender. He doesn't want people to accept him on values that are foreign to his nature. If what you dress in is going to make people like you, then those people perhaps are not worthy of you being liked by them. He wanted to be presented as who he was, and who he is.” I suspect that the vast majority of introverts likewise feel uncomfortable being told to dress as someone they are not.