W.W.N.M.D.?: What Would Nelson Mandela Do?

Nelson Mandela avoided a civil war. IT Managers can learn a lot from how he did this
Nelson Mandela avoided a civil war. IT Managers can learn a lot from how he did this

So what’s a CIO or tech manager to do when they get plopped down in the middle of a battlefield? No matter if internal strife has caused different sides of the house to stop playing together or if a merger has physically brought together teams but not made them members of the same department, a new IT leader has his/her work cut out for them as they try to make the correct judgment calls and forge a single unified department before their time runs out and they are shown the door.

Nelson Mandela found himself in a similar situation in 1994 after South Africa held its first free elections. Mandela’s party had won the election and he was now the president of South Africa. However, he had been elected by the black voters and this meant that the white voters felt alienated. This created a dangerous situation for South Africa because the whites retained both money and weapons and they could rise up and take down Mandela’s fledgling new government if they felt threatened.

In his new book, “Playing The Enemy“, John Carlin talks about what Mandela did to diffuse this volatile situation and I believe that it contains a number of lessons for IT managers who find themselves in the middle of a business civil war.

In Mandela’s case, the game of rugby was a game of the white minority that blacks had pushed for the world to boycott while the previous government was in power. Now that Mandela was president, he reached out to the country’s rugby establishment and offered to host the 1995 World Cup rugby games in South Africa. Mandela then worked to associate himself and his personal charisma to the game of rugby and by doing this he hoped to get all of South Africa excited about trying to win the world championship. It was in this way that Nelson Mandela was able to get both sides to take the first few tentative steps together away from chaos and towards unity.

It was Mandela who said “You don’t address their brains, you address their hearts.” IT managers can learn a great deal from all of this. When placed in a situation where there are multiple warring sides, a good manager needs to move quickly to diffuse the situation. Any time, energy, or effort spent on fighting an internal war will take away from the goal of the IT department which is to help the company move forward. The longer that the department spends battling within itself, the the greater the risk that the rest of the company will determine that it is more of a burden to the company than an asset.

So a great discussion so far, but what’s an IT manager to do? Here are three suggestions for tackling a civil war situation head on and coming out a winner:

  • Do It The Mandela Way: Identify which side is the weaker side (perhaps the purchased company’s IT department). Then do some research and find out what unique event, process, or reward that department used to have which unified it before the civil war broke out. Finally, take that unique identifier and apply it to the entire department so that they can all share in it and come together as they do.
  • Identify A Shared External Threat: Nothing forces teams to come together better than the perception that they are under assault from the outside. If you can identify and describe a valid external condition that could severely impact the IT department then the civil war activities will be forgotten as everyone mobilizes to fend off the threat. By working together to save the department, the civil war issues may be forgotten.
  • Cross Populate: In order to resolve civil war situations, communication between the different sides needs to start. One way to ensure that this will happen is to switch managers: management from one side is placed in charge of workers from the other side and visa versa. Although this will cause a great deal of grumbling at first, over time everyone will settle into their new roles and the distinction between “us” and “them” will become blurred and eventually go away.

There you have it – civil wars can be avoided. Nelson Mandela lead South Africa through its most dangerous time and emerged victorious on the other side. IT managers who find themselves in volatile work environments can learn from Mr. Mandela and, hopefully, follow his lead.

Have you ever found yourself caught in a business civil war? What caused it? Did one side win or did Sr. management need to step in to solve the conflict? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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