By Gideon Strauss

The Nelson Mandela portrayed by Idris Elba in the movie being released this weekend is no Jesus.

Coming soon to theatres!

Coming soon to theatres!

Mandela as he is portrayed in this movie loses his first marriage mostly to philandering, although his political activism comes a close second as a cause because of the time it demands of him, away from his marriage and family. He is a flawed man, and a man who is fully aware of his own flaws – not a sinless messiah.

And yet, while he is no Jesus, Mandela is, in one significant way, like Jesus: the leadership he provides results in profound personal loss to himself.

Remembering the grand scale of Mandela’s life and his historical contribution, I was surprised by how intimate this movie was, and how much it told the story through the lens of Mandela’s personal experience. Mandela is moved early in his career (by the brutal and unpunished murder of a friend by the South African police) to subordinate his youthful ambition to be rich and prominent to a greater ambition of securing justice and freedom for all South Africans, under the rule of law. His first marriage suffers, and he enters into a second marriage with Winnie Madikizela. His activism requires much time away from his children, and eventually, when he is imprisoned with a life sentence in the early 1960s, he loses his eldest son to an automobile accident, and does not see his daughters again until they are in their late teens and allowed to visit him in prison.

The best literature on leadership honestly address the responsibility of leaders to help those whom they lead to accept the losses that come with change for the sake of greater gains. Rarely, though, is it recognized just how much leaders themselves must be willing to lose to bring about the change to which they are committed. And judging by the life of someone like Nelson Mandela, the greater the change involved, the larger the scale on which the change is pursued, the higher the cost to the leader.

Early in the movie Mandela tells someone else about a recurring dream in which he finds himself back in his house in the township of Orlando, with all the people whom he loves happily gathered together – but they cannot see him. Towards the end he recounts a very similar dream – but now the house is empty, with none of his loved ones to be seen.

Mandela poster in a coffeeshop near my office

Mandela poster in a coffeeshop near my office

As a South African who was, in a small way, active in the movement against racist exploitation and oppression in apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela has long been a leader for whom I have had great respect and admiration. When this movie portrayed the events of those years through which I lived myself – particularly from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s – I was profoundly moved. But what I had never considered in all the years since I first learned who Mandela was, what he accomplished, and what he represented, was the enormous personal cost at which he did the work of leadership. A cost similar to that which all leaders, to some degree, must bear.

Gideon Strauss is the executive director at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and also editor of Fieldnotes Magazine.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


2 Responses to Leadership involves loss

  1. Lincoln Moore says:

    I think that the film Lincoln (pardon me for referencing a movie with which I share a name) was interested in some of the same topics which you are discussing here. We watch in that film as the marriage between Abraham and Mary Todd is strained by the pressures of the responsibility of the office of the president. As I watched that film, I wondered about what life would have looked like for Mary Todd had Abe lost out to Breckinridge in 1860. What would have been the state of her mental health? Would her husband have been able to afford her more consideration and time?

    The post also made me wonder what exactly was the source of the loss that you are describing. I think that a variety of sources can be noted but one thing that came to mind that is unique to leadership is simply the number of people to whom you are accessible and accountable. With so many people knowing you and having expectations surrounding your work, there pressure of failure would be increased beyond simply disappointing the ones closest to us and one’s self and would begin to be seen in the countenance of nearly everyone that you meet. Again, coming back to the film Lincoln, I think that the film communicates this in the scene in which the president rides through the field of dead soldiers as well as the scene in which he himself questions the legality of prosecuting the war against the south. Thanks for the article!

  2. […] and his thoughts on the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. […]