In a recent reprise of the Joseph story (Gen. 39:20-21), Nelson Mandela developed the traits and skills of magnanimous leadership in prison—by unwavering concentration on little things.
Mandela started each day with vigorous physical exercise. He rigorously maintained a positive outlook. As work assignments allowed, he engaged in day-long debates among prisoners. He worked to improve relationships among prison factions. He assisted inmates with legal appeals. He read widely. He studied Afrikaans, the language of his adversaries. For rest and respite, he tended a garden.
Mandela challenged the prison system in an unrelenting struggle for basic rights. He was resolute in addressing grievances, yet always communicated with courtesy. His aim was to achieve concessions through negotiation rather than confrontation.
Mandela entered prison as a zealous revolutionary. At his release 27 years later, one biographer wrote, he was “restrained, profoundly thoughtful of others, deeply humble, and eager to detect good qualities even in his political adversaries.”
By purposeful investment in the challenges at hand, prison became a university for Mandela. In this harsh school, he earned the equivalent of multiple PhD’s—in discipline, negotiating skills, and character. When the time came to negotiate freedom and lead the nation, Mandela was ready.
Like Joseph, Madela’s endeavors during years of incarceration remind us of Jesus words: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much. . . (Lk 16:10). More often than not, the best preparation for the future is to invest in little things now.
Quote from David Aikman, Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century, p. 69