Leaders and heroes find meaning in events that would devastate others.
In 1964, when Nelson Mandela went to prison in South Africa, where he would spend twenty-seven years, he entered his ordeal with the attitude of a freedom fighter with an absolute conviction to his cause. He was not a criminal going to prison but rather a lifelong warrior in the battle to free South Africa.
Mandela refused to allow his jailers to define, dehumanize or humiliate him, despite all their efforts to do so. On several occasions, he rebuked government efforts to silence his voice, even when they offer him freedom and security in exchange.
Because of the strength of his character, he would not let others define him or turn him into a passive victim. Because of the strength of his conviction, he never lost hope. Instead, he used his time in prison to forge a heroic identity for himself, one that he would use to inspire millions.
He later told Oprah Winfrey in a 2001 interview that prison was a necessary and formative element of his development. “If I had not been in prison,” he said, “I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life, and that is changing yourself.”
Mandela was able to emerge as a leader not because of the experience of going to prison, but because of the way he was able to process the experience. Again, we revisit one of our fundamental lessons: Those who truly lead have an extraordinary capacity to learn from life. They process the experiences of their lives, understand the lessons of their experience, and they express these lessons to others though the personal stories of identity they tell.