Work like a freedom fighter

Work like a freedom fighter

In the quest to leave an impact, we spend hours hustling, fighting, dreaming, and scheming. Trying to solve problems around us and realize the vision of a better world. The books on the Recharted Territory reading lists are meant to be a monthly break from the to do list, a way to get out of our own heads.

Sometimes the pages of a book are the source of a breakthrough. Other times they’re just a break, a way to remember that many other people have tackled hard things. We’re not alone in the journey.

The book for last December was “Long Walk to Freedom,” Nelson Mandela‘s autobiography. A political page-turner, it follows his lifelong struggle to transform his country in his own words. We learned about his early childhood, his career path as a lawyer, and the turning point when he enters the African National Congress party (ANC). How he used his legal expertise to chip away at the system of apartheid wherever he could. And how he approached his role in the context of the broader anti-apartheid movement.

Reading it, I felt like I was sitting in the room with him while he described his life story, sharing nuggets of wisdom for changemakers to follow. The book really shows what it looks like to go all-in for a worthy cause, along with the wins, losses, and internal struggles. I tried to pull out some of the lessons below.


Don’t know what path you’ll end up on? It doesn’t matter. Work with what you have, where you are.

Mandela wasn’t born a freedom fighter. His knowledge of the problem, potential solutions, and the vehicle he could use to make a difference changed over time. It was the culmination of many smaller experiences, making new connections, taking action, and gaining new knowledge that eventually created the opportunities and mindset that he needed to successfully navigate the final talks with the government.


Focus on the mission

Why was Mandela able to stay so focused for so long, after many setbacks? He focused on his core mission. Freedom for all South Africans. That was one of the driving filters that he used to make decisions.


Questioning the path you chose is normal

Mandela’s fight for the freedom of a country led to less time spent with his family, which he reflects on multiple times in the book. He wonders if he should have chosen a different path, if he should have prioritized his family higher. Ultimately he decides that for him, the needs of the South African public were difficult to ignore, even at the expense of his own family. But it still was painful to deal with the consequences of that choice.


Fill in knowledge and resource gaps

When non-violent tactics didn’t seem to be working, Mandela decided that the ANC needed a more militaristic arm and he ended up heading it. Yet he was a lawyer with absolutely no military experience. So what did he do? He learned as much as he could by reading, taking training, and visiting other countries who had led similar initiatives. He also pulled in people who had more experience than him.


Forget about being “empowered”

Nowadays, in office conference rooms and business articles, there’s a lot of talk about needing to “empower” people. We also might have caught ourselves stating that we’re not taking action because we’re not “empowered.”

Mandela completely flips that idea. He spent 27 years in prison, a place that was designed to make its inhabitants powerless, to take away their drive and self-control. There were ranking systems so that the benefits that prisoners received were linked to their race and “good behavior.” Mandela worked within that environment, using the skills he gained as a lawyer and his relationships to continue to fight for whatever rights he could. The ANC members in prison realized that they didn’t have enough information to make policy decisions outside of the prison so they focused on improving conditions inside. They created a representative committee and gathered signatures for a petition demanding better treatment. Via notes passed to each other over the span of weeks and months.

In an environment where people won’t hand you power (and may try to take it away from you) being empowered comes from recognizing that you have pretty powerful assets that others can’t take away. Your brain and your heart.


Get to know your counterpart

Whenever a new commanding officer would take over the prison, Mandela would meet with him to share his cause and evaluate the CO’s character. Getting to know the personality, mindset, and goals of your adversary as soon as possible can help you narrow down the strategies you could follow to try to turn them into a partner in some way.


Create a curriculum around your cause

Imprisoned members of the ANC realized that newer members had less information about the ANC’s history and values. So they developed a curriculum while in prison and shared it with others. They created courses on the history of the struggle from different points of view, and shared information about political doctrines. Given the limited time the prisoners had together, they would teach using the Socratic method, through asking and answering questions either while they worked in the quarry or via letters to each other.

The benefits of teaching go both ways. Mandela speaks about the value of receiving questions about the course materials,

Such questions were immensely valuable and forced one to think hard about one’s views.

– Nelson Mandela


Recognize the bravery and sacrifice of others in your coalition

Mandela had become a “celebrity” of sorts in the country, especially after being freed from prison. Rather than focusing on the spotlight, Mandela shares,

I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had became a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.

– Nelson Mandela

He was one voice and actor within a huge movement. Even after he became a very public face of the ANC at his trials, when he went underground, and as he negotiated with the government, he maintained a humbleness. He thanked everyone who had been involved, both at home and abroad, within and outside of his normal circles. He recognized that the success of the movement depended on the courage, wisdom, and generosity of many other people.


Provide a productive way for people to channel their anger and frustration

Thankfully, most challenges we’re tackling will not involve frustration that escalates into violence. However, we still need to be aware that asking people to hide all of their frustration may cause it to fester longer and blow up into something worse later. Mandela recognized that as violence in the country escalated, the ANC needed to encourage some mass action resistance activities so people had ways to express themselves. We can do something similar by giving people channels to take action (productive action, not just venting) to avoid worse things happening down the line.


Hate the system, love the people

Mandela was surprisingly calm and open-minded when interacting with people who were pro-apartheid. He shares that he was able to do that and have productive conversations because over time he started viewing the system of apartheid as the enemy. People who supported the system were acting based on their knowledge and experiences.

I knew that people expected me to harbor anger towards whites. But I had none. In prison, my anger toward whites decreased, but my hatred for the system grew. I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another.

– Nelson Mandela


To work like a freedom fighter, you need to identify a cause worth fighting for, constantly learn, and focus on improving the system rather than blaming the people within in. You need to be patient for long-term results, but constantly pushing for short-term impact, regardless of how many resources you have and the scope of value you can create.


What other insights did you pull from the book?


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