Aurecon chief people officer Dean Naidoo sees the silver lining behind lockdown

Dean reflects on lockdown in the context of former president Nelson Mandela's imprisonment. 

On August 5 1962, police captured Nelson Mandela outside Howick, Kwazulu-Natal. He was later remanded in Johannesburg's Marshall Square prison awaiting trial. The trial later became known as the infamous Rivonia Trial. Eight of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment at the ‘Palace of Justice,’ in Pretoria. Mandela was sentenced to 27 Years in prison or as inmates called it ‘Lockdown.  

I have been reflecting on this word ‘lockdown’ and what it really means.  The Mariam Webster dictionary describes Lockdown as – “an emergency measure or condition in which people are temporarily prevented from entering or leaving a restricted area or building during a threat of danger”, another stronger version is “the confinement of prisoners to their cells for all or most of the day as a temporary security measure”. 

Although some of us might currently feel confined or restricted, I think it is safe to say that we are not stuck in a dark cell for years under prison conditions. The latter definition got me thinking about how lockdown would have influenced Mandela’s humanness, ideologies, leadership style and general outlook on life, after having spent between 1962 and 1990 away from the world as it was then.    

I think Mandela knew all about social distancing before it became fashionable, yet despite his incarceration, he was instrumental in liberating a nation from within the confines of his prison cell under extreme conditions.  History will remember him as the person who overcame adversity and continues to inspire the world. 

When I reflect on Mandela’s journey I realise that there are a few things that we can learn from his time during his confinement as we find ourselves in a 'lockdown' of our own.

Here are five learnings I've been reflecting on, which I think will be quite helpful to my fellow human capital practitioners.

1 Human centeredness 

Interestingly, Mandela discovered and demonstrated the uniqueness of connecting with people at a “heart level” despite his circumstances. He was known as a caring, compassionate and highly emotionally intelligent individual. Now is a great time to demonstrate this level of care and reach out to that someone in need. People, who are not necessarily resilient during these times,  are depending on us.  Research shows that acts of kindness can release hormones that contribute to your attitude and your overall emotional and physical wellbeing.  Reaching out or just checking in with a mate, a colleague or someone in your world to see how they are holding up might do you and them a world of good. Mandela’s ability to reach out to people from different backgrounds earned him admiration and respect - even from those who oppressed him. 

2 Collaboration

This is a great excuse to collaborate. This is a time for you to call on the resources and the capabilities of others beyond our sphere of engagement or influence. That wicked problem that we did not have the time to focus on when we were in the office, now perhaps calls for a reason to reach out to someone who has that skill set that we can leverage off. Collaboration does not show weakness or vulnerability, it shows confidence in your own skin to work jointly with others. A coming together of diverse thinking, skills and experiences to solve that which may have challenged you on your own.  Mandela found the need not only to collaborate with his own inner circle, but the broader world, and even with his prison wardens and oppressors.  I think his collaboration paid off.

3 Don’t lose sight of the goal 

This I think was one of Mandela’s greatest attributes as a human being. He was super focused and always kept his eye on the goal. He was determined and ensured that those around him also were aligned to his goal of making a difference. As an employee or leader, do you know what your goal is? do you know your purpose?  As an employee or leader, we are all stepping into a new era.  I said recently that there might be no greater opportunity for us to build a refreshed culture that we speak about, while we are in lockdown.

If one of Mandela’s main goals was to liberate a nation, I think one of our goals can be to make a difference and shape the cultural architecture of our businesses. We don’t have to wait until after lockdown. Will we be known for our innovation, resilience, superior performance, care for each other and our communities and clients? We have an opportunity to write our script and create our own narrative starting today.  Knowing what your goal is, staying the course no matter what helps with the 'why' of things. Mandela did not forget his goal and pursued this relentlessly.

4 Resilience 

We will all experience twists and turns, from daily challenges to traumatic events, to global pandemics. Disruption impacts people differently, bringing a unique flood of thoughts, strong emotions and uncertainty. Psychologists tell us that people generally adapt well over time to life-changing and stressful situations - in part thanks to resilience. Psychologists also define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. In this time of lockdown, a deeper degree of resilience is required to get us through this season. We can start by changing the narrative, choose your response, think and speak words of hope, exercise and release some chemicals in the brain, find a purpose (bigger than yourself), foster wellness, connect with people, pray, meditate. I am sure that there were days when Mandela thought that he could not make it, but he had to dig deep, stay focussed, draw strength from each other, pick himself up and continue in his pursuit. 

5 Adapt

Mandela did a great job of adapting to the environment he found himself in. While he was imprisoned, he also prepared himself mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually for the future. He knew the day would come when he would be free. He never stopped believing and this fueled him to broaden his knowledge as he knew that his day would come and he would need to adapt to the outside.   He stepped into a different world when he left the Victor Verster Prison on a sunny day in February 1990 and our world, as we knew it, changed forever. You and I are finding creative ways to adapt. We are social creatures and not designed to live in lockdown but, as we have no choice, let's improve ourselves in the areas we believe we need to and let's prepare ourselves to step into a “different” world.

If Mandela can come out better than before after 27 years, I am sure that we too can learn some great lessons during our season in Lockdown.