In 1964, Nelson Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of incitement to sabotage, treason and violent conspiracy against the South African regime. He spent a total of 27 years in captivity, most of them in the notorious prison on Robben Island. For those long years he broke rocks, did hard labour, was beaten, and had no privileges. One day he walked out of the prison to change the world.
Following his release in February 1990, Nelson Mandela has emerged as the world’s most significant moral leader since Mahatma Ghandi. As president of the African National Congress and figurehead of the anti-apartheid movement, he was instrumental in moving South Africa towards black majority rule. And throughout the world he has been revered as a vital force for human rights and racial equality. In 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Adapted from notes from the cover of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography LONG WALK TO FREEDOM)
Nelson Mandela’s story reminds us that a life of greatness is often birthed out of a time of preparation that is quite painful and costly. Leadership Emergence is an often underrated and overlooked season in the life of a leader. Nelson Mandela’s experiences remind us that much of our development as leaders occurs away from the classes of formal training institutions in God’s University of the Desert, in a place where we are even unaware of what is happening, except that God is at work in a sovereign way.
I remember returning from two years study at Fuller Theological Seminary in America with my wife Sue, and two young daughters. After much reflection, I realised that the most important lessons I learned in this season came not from the 24 subjects that I completed in 20 months for my master’s degree, (as important as they were) but from the subject that God had prepared for me called Walking By Faith. In this subject I learned to trust God for my financial needs at a time where I received no salary or support. Sue and I experienced God’s provision for our medical needs, our housing needs, our girls’ unique schooling needs and many other needs. All in all, entry into God’s University of the Desert was quite unexpected and unpredictable, but one where we learned to look to Him to find that all of our needs would be met by Him alone. Learning to trust Him completely was an important part of my leadership formation.
And as I gave closer attention to the scriptures, I realised that Sue and I were in good company with Job (Job2), Joseph (Genesis 37:36), Abraham (Genesis 2:1-7), Moses (Exodus 2:15),David (1 Samuel 22:1-2), John the Baptist (Luke 3:2-3), Jesus (Luke 4:1-2), Paul (Galations1:16-17) and the Apostle John (Revelation 1:9). All of these men were graduates from the University of the Desert. As you read this paper on Leadership Emergence, I expect that you may be trying to make sense of your own University of the Desert experience or maybe it will still occur (or reoccur) sometime in the future.
Unfortunately, some people fall away from God’s unfolding purposes in this season and sadly does the world in which they live suffer a great loss. To help you gain some perspective on your journey, I list the following guidelines that have been of great value to me in my leadership emergence experiences.
LEADERSHIP EMERGENCE :
- is a season or series of seasons where God is sovereignly preparing you for a future that He has planned for you in the fullness of His time.
- has much to do with your character development for your competence can only realise its full potential when it is based on a strong Christlike character.
- focuses heavily on your development in the area of self leadership. The hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself and you can only expect to lead others to the extent that you have gained mastery in leading yourself. For it is unlikely that a church will rise above the level of its leaders.
- is a time of Emerging leaders should not be promoted on their potential alone. That is why Paul said to Timothy “do not be hasty in the laying on of hands……” (1 Timothy 5:22). Paul explains God’s leadership emergence process to the Thessalonian church – God tests our hearts to approve us and entrust us with the gospel. (1 Thessalonians 2:4)
- is a time of shaping our identity not in what we do, but in who we are. We are human beings before we are human doings. Leadership emergence seasons can be times of humbling where God wants to know that His glory is safe in our hands and that our identity flows out of our relationship with His Son.
- is a time when our attitude will be tried and tested. I can’t imagine the extent to which Nelson Mandela had to make difficult attitude decisions as he was treated so cruelly on Robben Island, and in the following years where he forgave his captors for the pain they inflicted on him. A person in leadership with unresolved attitudes from the past is in danger of creating a toxic environment in an organisation.
- is a time of learning to trust God in all the experiences of life; God’s timing (Nelson Mandela was in jail for 27 years, Moses was in the desert for 40 years), life’s disappointments and failures, God’s open and closed doors, God’s provision when we are faced with God sized challenges that take us beyond our resources and so many other testing experiences.
- is a time where we arrive at a clear understanding of our SHAPE (spiritual gifts, heart’s desires, abilities, personality and life’s experiences). This will contribute to a focussed awareness of God’s purposes for our lives and like Paul be able to say, “this one thing I do, not these many things I dabble at.”
- is a time where we learn to willingly come under This would not have been easy for Nelson Mandela nor was it for many of those who rose to significant positions of leadership in the Bible. It is never advisable to place a person in a position of authority until they have first of all learned to come under authority.
- Is a time where we decide what price we are prepared to pay in the life of service that God has chosen for us. Will we be like the merchant who sold everything to buy the pearl of great value. (Matthew 13:45-46)
Life on Robben Island was a critical time in the life of Nelson Mandela. It is interesting to ponder what future there might have been for Nelson Mandela if he had not gone through this University of the Desert. I close with a poem found in one of my top leadership books by J. Oswald Sanders called Spiritual Leadership. Mr Sanders, whom I had the privilege of meeting on a number of occasions, introduces this poem with the following words: “Leadership training cannot be done on a mass scale. It requires patience, careful instruction and prayerful personal guidance over a considerable time. Disciples are not manufactured wholesale. They are produced one by one, because someone has taken the pains to discipline, to instruct and to enlighten, to nurture and train one that is younger.”
When God wants to drill a man
And thrill a man,
And skill a man
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part;
When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways!
How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him
And with mighty blows converts him
Into trial shapes of clay which Only God understands;
While his tortured heart is crying
And he lifts beseeching hands!
How He bends but never breaks
When his good He undertakes;
How He uses whom He chooses,
And with every purpose fuses him;
By every act induces him
To try His splendour out –
God knows what He’s about.
Quoted in SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP by J. Oswald Sanders
- Select 3 biblical characters who went through the University of the Desert and write down insights you learned from their experiences. Let them be as a mentor to you.
- Find a personal mentor who can help you process your own leadership emergence season/s.
- Keep a journal of how you are learning to trust God in the times of testing that come to you.
- In what ways have you been tested in the area of your attitudes and how have you grown more Christlike in these tests?
- Write down 5 personal growth goals that you have identified as a result of reading this paper.