In the days after Mandela died, on 5 December 2013, I bought a copy of every newspaper and read every Mandela story. I still have them all. I was drawn into the slipstream of the ‘Mandela Magic’. I have never met Nelson Mandela, and yet he still engages me. I ask myself, “Am I engaging enough?”

He courted us, we fell in love with him, we happily engaged. How did he do this?

  • The vision he painted of a united South Africa breathed life and hope into the tired and fearful hearts of a ragged South Africa.
  • He engaged the disengaged. By learning Afrikaans he spoke to people’s hearts. Having tea with Betsie Verwoerd, wife of the architect of Apartheid, meant crossing an unpopular bridge in full view. He was intensely interested in all whom he met, irrespective of social standing, race, age, language or political persuasion. Mandela’s radical inclusion engaged all sectors of society.
  • He used visionary foresight to guide his actions. In engaging worlds that he did not share, he took, as an example, an active interest in rugby, a predominantly white sport. He went further by wearing the hotly debated Springbok jersey during the 1995 rugby world cup. This “changed South Africa forever”, rugby captain Francois Pienaar recalls.
  • He appreciated most to being seen as human and he saw all people having equal value. Having fought for the disenfranchised, he never neglected his base. He challenged injustice and inequality. During his imprisonment on Robben Island he was outspoken in his struggles for “sunglasses, long trousers, study privileges, equalized food” (The Long walk to Freedom), so that all prisoners would be treated equally. Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda La Grange wrote in her memoir, that Mandela’s “entire being was based on respect. Respect for your friends, respect for the enemy, for those poorer than you…those who harmed you… those more powerful…”
  • He wanted sufficient/enough information to guide his decision making. The Guardian noted well thatHe wanted more and not less debate, more engagement, less introversion”. He asked questions, listened intently and learned. He willingly changed his opinion if he was wrong.

Mandela operated in a volatile and uncertain context, like the world we live in. In order to be and remain agile in the face of global challenges, and change drivers such as the 4th Industrial Revolution we could do well to emulate Mandela’s style, and so tick off key skills needed for the future. (World Economic Forum, Future Jobs).

In the workplace engagement is the connection an employee feels to the goals of an organisation. The deeper the connection is, the more committed employees will be to help the organisation succeed through inspired effort. So how are organisations doing? Gallup research reveals that in 2019: 65% of employees are not engaged, 13% are actively disengaged, which leaves 35% that are engaged. Engagement can lead to positive, high impact, outcomes. (Khan, Hewitt, Gallup). So how do leaders engage employees, and how can employees engage in turn?

What leaders can do?

Engagement experts such as Hewitt, Khan, Temkin, Zenger & Folkman’s single out engagement skills important to “building an irresistible organization” (Josh Bersin). Such leaders mirror Mandela’s style and other incredible business leaders I have connected with over the years:

  1. Establishes and communicates a clear direction, shared purpose and strategy. This leader is able to translate complexity into understandable language, so that all have clarity about how their roles add value. Such transparency makes employees feel involved, and inspires ownership of “my” company.
  2. Provides clear objectives, expectations, and stretch goals to keep people growing and celebrating.
  3. Engages personally at all levels, formally and informally, paying close attention and holding inclusive meetings. Over and above an open door policy, this leader, lives an “outdoor” policy which inspires and motivates.
  4. Develops others according to skill and enjoyment requirements to be successful to be promoted from within, and thus be retained.
  5. Is personally coachable, teachable, and continues learning.
  6. Asks for and acts on feedback from all levels of the organisation, and by using a variety of tools.
  7. Has high integrity, lives the company values, and inspires trust.
  8. Includes engagement as a measure of leader performance. Peter Drucker rightly said, “What’s not measured is not managed”.

What we can all do.

You might be asking, “Surely it’s not up to leaders alone?” William Khan, a founding father of “engagement” would agree. “Our real selves show up when we say what we think and feel in service of doing the work the best way we know how. When we care deeply about what we are doing, and are committed to doing the best we can, we feel compelled to speak rather than remain silent.” As citizens and employees we can set our own dreams and visions. We can build our own skills sets through reading, informal and formal learning, seeking mentors and engaging in debate. We can contribute to our communities including the less fortunate. We can engage.


You may well ask, “How can you drive both business results and people engagement? Gallup states that, Companies with highly engaged work forces do. ”They outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share”. The Fortune 500’s 2019 Business Results and Best Company to Work For show organisations like Apple ranking highly on both engagement and business metrics.

Furthermore, engagement drives up quantifiable revenue/sales growth, operating income, productivity and total shareholder return according to Aon Hewitt research.  From a talent perspective engagement increases staff retention, internal promotions, and wellness; and reduces absenteeism. Customer satisfaction, connectedness, loyalty and retention scores are also boosted. Towers Perrin, TCEB and ISR research show similar results.

By using the magic combination of engaging and being engaged, we will be more ready for what comes next. Engagement skills will be as important as AI in jobs of the future. Let’s choose to engage the gears that need changing to win the future. Join me.