I really enjoyed watching Invictus this week. If you haven’t seen the film, it chronicles the first days and months of Nelson Mandela’s rise to leadership in South Africa. Rest assured it is not a sports movie as much as a leadership movie. It portrays several forms of leadership and one leader’s attempts to influence another leader to bring about a desired result.
I was fascinated first by Mandela’s use of symbols. He seemed to bet his presidency on a decision — against the advice of his chief of staff — to focus on rugby as a symbol that would accomplish his desire to bring a divided nation together. It’s true that sports are one of the few things that can create unlikely alliances. Sports success not only unites; it inspires and ignites dreams.
The biggest challenge Mandela takes on in his use of symbols was one of prejudice. Rugby was seen as a white sport, and the Springboks a symbol of everything black South Africans fought against. If the whites cheered for it, the blacks cheered against it. Mandela took a major risk in attempting to reclaim a national symbol. Most leadership gurus would fall on the side of his chief of staff; the associations of most symbols are too powerful to redefine.
Let me try to suggest a parallel. I don’t think we appreciate how crazy it is that the cross has become a piece of jewelry. In the first century, the cross symbolized everything that was hated about the Romans. How many redefinitions has that symbol gone through in the two millennia since Christ stole it from his captors? Of course, that’s 2,000 years. Mandela redefines the rugby team in less than a year. Can you think of another symbol that changed meaning so quickly?
Symbols are a powerful tool for leaders to use to advance their cause. That’s a topic worth another post down the road.
The second thing that struck me was that Mandela staked his influence over the rugby team on someone other than the coach. In fact, I can’t recall the coach appearing in the film. Instead, Mandela challenges the captain of the team. As a player, François Pienaar has the greater influence over the resolve of the team.
Mandela’s conversations with Pienaar are alone worth seeing the movie again. The bi-generational leadership model they employ is celebrated at the end, when each thanks the other for service to the nation. I think what struck me was their two very different styles and roles. Mandela has to lead a nation. His influence comes from incredible personal authority burnished from 27 years in prison. His job is to inspire, make tough choices and sacrifice for the good of the country. He does that in several cases by challenging his people — black South Africans — in essence to do to whites what they wish the whites would have done to them.
On the other hand, Pienaar begins with very little personal authority, seemingly barely surviving a purge of team leadership. In some ways, he is a symbol of the Springboks’ losing ways and racist heritage. Inspired by Mandela, he determines to bring change. He prods and challenges the team to break their self-made molds. He puts in the effort, comes up with the strategy and forces the team to dig as deep as he himself does. He also uses symbol. There’s a great moment when he hands out cans of beer that nobody likes and forcefully associates the taste with losing. At times, like Mandela, he looks very lonely in his leadership. By sheer determination, he carries his team to victory, but then shares the credit 43 million ways.
By the end of the movie, Pienaar shares the stage as equals with Mandela. I’m intrigued by his journey — how a young leader can build a reputation and gain the personal authority needed to influence a nation. The movie’s worth watching, and probably watching again. Give me your thoughts. What stood out for you?