Leadership in the Movies: Bev writes about Invictus and 5 Leadership Practices


Nelson MandelaMorgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood have created another very special movie now playing across North America.  Invictus is the story of Nelson Mandela’s early days as President of South Africa, and particularly how he viewed the country’s Rugby team, the Springboks, and an upcoming World Cup event to be held in South Africa, as an opportunity to bring the country together.

The year is 1995.  Mandela (Freeman) is in his first term as President.  He recognizes the tremendous challenges facing his government in a land torn apart by apartheid. Racial tensions are at an all time high, people are struggling with the effects of crippling unemployment, and a new black government has shifted the balance of political power. 

The World Cup is to be held in South Africa.  Mandela senses that this might be a great opportunity to attempt to bring blacks and whites together with pride in a winning home team.  Traditionally whites cheered enthusiastically for the Springboks at every game.  The black population cheered for anyone else but the home team because they felt the team, and even the game itself, represented all that was white and oppressive in South Africa.

The Leadership Challenge and the 5 Practices deeply permeate Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela.  In several scenes Mandela’s quiet reflective confidence, his commitment to lead from values, the personal connection he makes with everyone he meets, are all evidence of his skill in calmly Modeling the Way.

One iconic scene features Mandela in his first meeting with Francois Pienaar, a white Africaaner and the Springboks captain, played beautifully by Matt Damon.  Pienaar is invited to meet the President and arrives at Government House with trepidation, uncertain of the reason for the meeting.  Mandela’s personal style, his warmth, the way he treats everyone around him with great respect and appreciation completely charms Pienaar who leaves with the realization that something very significant has just happened to him.  During their brief but meaningful time together Mandela has skillfully Inspired a Shared Vision about the importance and meaning of a Springboks win to South Africa.

The title of the movie Invictus comes from the Latin meaning Unconquered.  We are led to believe that Mandela had a poem written on a scrap of paper in his prison cell while he was incarcerated.  In the movie, Mandela gives the poem to the team captain Pienaar, before the start of the World Cup.  At one point in the story the Springboks are touring Robbin Island and Pienaar spends a quiet few minutes in Mandela’s old cell contemplating the kind of moral courage it would take to spend 27 years there.  He is transformed.

Mandela Challenges the Process beautifully in several scenes.  He consistently challenges his staff to think differently about issues and policies.  For example he challenges his black head of security to ensure his black staff works collaboratively with their more experienced white colleagues.  How they learn to work together as a single team, both cheering for the Springboks, provides one of several great sub-texts to the story.

Mandela challenges Pienaar to think positively and creatively about the possibility of a win even though the odds are stacked against them.  His challenge, his personal commitment, his quiet leadership enable Pienaar to begin to see the long shot as a possibility, thus Enabling him to Act to lead his team to train harder than ever.

A scene where the local (all black) sporting organization passes a motion to change the name of the team to suit a different blacker South Africa is a study in Challenging the Process when Mandela, despite the cautions of his aides to not get involved,  appears just after the vote to ask them to think differently.  When he gets only a small minority of the group on his side, he sees it as a small win rather than a defeat.

There are several scenes where Mandela demonstrates his expertise in Encouraging the Heart.  For instance, there is great love for him among his staff who affectionately call him Mandiba, the name of the clan of which he is a member. Mandiba is the name of a Thembu chief who ruled in the Transkei in the 18th century.  It is considered very polite to use someone’s clan name because it is much more important in this culture than a surname, referring as it does to the esteemed ancestor from which a person is descended.

In turn, Mandela is always interested in each of his staff members as individuals; he knows everyone by name, asks about their families, appreciates everything they do for him.  In one of the scenes Damon’s character watches him with admiration as he introduces and speaks with a woman who has brought in the tea.

In another memorable scene, Mandela quietly memorizes the names of each of the Springboks players so he can give them each a personal greeting.

Matt Damon is well cast as the captain of the team.  Francois Pienaar is an Africaaner whose father plays the redneck card saying things like “these people will ruin our country.”  Pienaar must reconcile his growing admiration and respect for Mandela with what he is hearing at home.  Obviously he was successful as it is said that today Mandela is Godfather to one of Pienaar’s children.

Like many others who have seen it, I was totally captured by this movie and all it can teach us about leadership, courage, building and sustaining relationships.  It is not so much a movie about a team that comes from behind to win the championship as it is about a process of leadership, vision, courage and commitment to build a unified country against steep odds.

Bev Simpson