When my long-time hero Nelson Mandela died in 2013, I knew I had to drop everything and travel to South Africa to pay my respects to one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen.
My brother Marc and I can trace our views about activism to reading his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, when we were still kids. Years later in a quiet meeting with Mr. Mandela, we asked him about his greatest lesson on leadership? He said, “For me it was easy…because I deeply believed in what I did and I led my sheep from behind.” He said that when he was a boy, he was charged with shepherding his family’s herd of sheep from local fields to graze. After many failed attempts to get them to follow him, he eventually realized that a shepherd must walk behind his herd and coax, cajole and encourage them to find the right path.
A leader means empowering others. Because I wanted to share Mr. Mandela’s legacy with as many people as possible, I documented my experience in real time so that others could join in honoring and memorializing his incredible life as a civil rights activist and leader.
I created a vlog focusing on the perspective of South African young people during a historic time of change for their country and the world.
I also shared the experience through a number of columns to give readers back in Europe and North America a first-hand account of what was happening on the ground leading up to Mr. Mandela’s funeral: NBC News (“Saying Goodbye to Nelson Mandela”), The Globe and Mail (“Reflecting on the future of Nelson Mandela’s legacy”), MSNBC (“The future of Mandela's legacy”)
Free The Children hosted a special memorial celebration in Toronto that included inspirational speakers and Grammy Award-winner, Nelly Furtado. During the event, our team called in from South Africa by video conference joined by dozens of local children. We connected them with 450 students in North America and together we learned about, celebrated and honored Mr. Mandela’s legacy.
My most impactful memory from that journey was going to the funeral in Mr. Mandela’s hometown of Qunu, where I met an elderly resident of the town who had grown up with Mr. Mandela.
The man could not believe that Prince Charles would come to South Africa to honor his long-time friend, who as a boy, walked around barefoot because he could not afford shoes. Due to his unwavering spirit and determination, that boy changed the course of an entire country and was now having his life honored by leaders from across the globe.
That boy changed the course of an entire country and was now having his life honored by leaders from across the globe.
This experience was when the seeds for the concept of legacy became planted in my mind. During those weeks in South Africa, I was able to step back and look at the life, achievements, perseverance, faith, impact and humility of this man’s 90 year life. For the first time, the areas of one’s life that are truly important started to become clear to me.
Whether a great, world-renowned activist and leader like Mr. Mandela, or a regular person just trying to do the best for themselves and their family, we are all driven by similar purposes. We care about our family and friends who we cherish, love and support. We all need to find purpose in our work and create a level of wealth or financial security to take care of ourselves and those who need a little extra help. We seek to be part of a community, whether within a physical place or among a group of like-minded individuals. And many of us are guided by a faith, or religion, or a level of spirituality that connects us.
I was fortunate to learn these lessons in my younger years as a product of spending time with many great leaders, most who were significantly older than me at events and on speaking tours. People like His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa and of course Mr. Mandela, spoke with me and allowed me to learn from their many years of gathering experience and wisdom. These people were my heroes, then and now and being in their presence and listening to such powerful, yet humble people focused on making an impact in the world, was truly inspiring.