What Mandela and Invictus Can Teach Us About the Work Place
The movie Invictus intertwines three great stories: the triumph of human rights and democracy in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s personal journey, and the turn around story of a rugby team. Three great themes; two great actors, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon; and directed by Clint Eastwood. However, there was a nagging feeling that it wasn’t as good a movie as it should have been. Despite the nobility of the story and the strength of the execution the movie is simply good, not great. Actually, there seems to be disagreement on this point as many people feel it was an awesome move, but not all. So what may have been missing?
Conflict. There were no bad guys. That was the point of course. Mandela embraced his former enemies. Several times in the movie a potential villain emerged (e.g. the former South African security police) and yet Mandela conquered by embracing them, and so any conflict was fleeting. The moral of course is that we must get past our differences, understand our enemy and by doing so unite. All this peace and harmony is definitely noble but perhaps less entertaining.
Susan Scott in her book Fierce Conversations points out that many business meetings are boring because of a lack of conflict. Her point is complementary to that of Invictus. Scott means that too many business meetings avoid confronting real issues, skirt decision-making, and are of little value because people are unwilling to address the deeper issues that may fuel conflict.
Our fear of having fierce, crucial and courageous conversations paradoxically results in a more hostile work environment (and often home environment). Out of fear, politeness or deference we avoid directly addressing issues, and then demonize others by making assumptions about what they believe. People quickly become caricatured objects and the work place becomes a grinding machine rather than a team of people. There are two great books on this topic by the Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box and The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. These books are written as novels and so are more entertaining than other similar books (and yes, they contain lots of conflict).
Mandela succeeded because he was unafraid of conflict and sought to resolve it by understanding and eventually embracing his adversaries. The political lesson is obvious. There is also a lesson for the work place. Almost everyone starts a new job with dreams and aspirations. All too often these fade and work becomes a grind. Both Mandela and the Arbinger books would tell us that to succeed we need to understand each other as people, deal with issues head on, and the result will be a high performance team.