Meeting Mandela: What I learned

Meeting Mandela: What I learned


“A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones”
Nelson Mandela

While I have a minor public profile in South Africa, to Nelson Mandela I was a stranger, that’s what made my meeting with him so extraordinary. A client invited me to attend a presentation he was giving in Johannesburg. When the formalities were over Madiba walked into the audience and began shaking hands not with the dignitaries up front but with the cleaners at the back. This is not what most people with a lot of status are inclined to do.

Attraction to status

Studies shows that people with high status pay less attention to people with low. This can be demonstrated in a five-minute conversation. The person with higher status demonstrates fewer signals of interest such as nodding, laughing, listening and even eye contact. Higher status people are also more likely to interrupt or look away from the other person. That’s what we mean when we say he “looked down on me” or worse “he looked right through me.”

Those with high status are usually not deliberately being rude; their dismissive behaviour is mostly unconscious. It may not be nice but it is an evolutionary instinct. To survive and thrive we depend on our relationships. High status people have more material favors and opportunities to give us. That’s why we tend to be more attracted to them and that’s where Nelson Mandela was different.

Madiba’s ESP

Standing at the back with the cleaners I was one of the first to have a moment with the father of our nation. This was no perfunctory shake of the hand. Like everyone, for a few moments Madiba made me feel like the center of his world. How did he do it? Nelson Mandela was a master of what I call ESP. When you were with him he created this deep, almost extrasensory perception of connection to him. You know how you can be in the room but not be in the room? Nelson Mandela was in the room. Technically, ESP boils down to what Madiba did when he shook my hand. He made direct Eye contact, Smiled that smile of his that could light up a small town, and his open Positive Posture conveyed his genuine interest and boy did I feel good.

We loved Madiba not because he had high status but because he made us feel like we did. He overrode that all too common reflex to ignore those who lack social standing. Character is how we treat people who can be of no possible use to us. I had my hand shaken by Nelson Mandela not because I was special but because he thought everyone was.


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Comments (10)

  1. cWzI2a1Xn :

    370480 862974I enjoy reading write-up. Hope i can discover much more articles like this one. Thanks for posting. 137989

  2. oeM72tis :

    508804 202639Howdy just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know several with the pictures aren

  3. Justin Cohen :

    Thank you Nkosiyamntu, Merry Christmas to you!

  4. Nkosiyamntu :

    I just love this post Justin . Wishing you a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year!

  5. Justin Cohen :

    Thank you for your post Guy. The best part about ESP is how it makes us feel. There is a feedback loop in the brain, when we’re happy we smile but when we smile we feel happy. Emotion is contagious so watching someone else’s face light up because of us, lights up our own even more!

  6. Justin Cohen :

    Thanks Kathleen. The genius of Mandela was that he was able to transform both hearts and minds, I believe that was because he was willing to have his transformed.

  7. kathleen :

    I am sorry I never got to meet him. Having listened to the two sides of the story I realize , only my opinion, that had the tables been turned, we, the whites would have put up a fight as well for ‘freedon’. What it has all done for me is to realize that everyone deserves respect and a listening ear, with humility and a smile ,no matter what their colour or status, but especially the poor and struggling folk.

    He knew how to smile from the heart.

  8. Guy :

    Thank you Justin for a simple, perceptive and powerful post! You highlight an important lesson for us all and give us an awesome takeaway in the form of ESP. I will start practicing that from tomorrow morning:)

  9. Justin :

    Quite right Xolani, Mandela was the first to say he was no saint, unless a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying 🙂 He certainly got it wrong at times but he had the humility to admit it and apologize, a great lesson for us all.

  10. Xolani :

    Yeah! We can only learn a lot from the old man, with the understanding that he is still a human being just like everyone, with that in mind we can go even far.