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The power of the ordinary: Mandela showed the way for Biden to heal the US

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Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

After four years under the assault of Trumpian exceptionalism, the last thing the world needs is more supermen. It needs Madiba’s higher ideal of collective humanity. 

The changing of the guard in Washington from the 45th president of the US to the 46th is an opportune time for us to take a moment to reflect: Donald Trump and Joe Biden are very different people – one driven to be extraordinary and stand out, the other almost the opposite.

The past four years in the White House have been both unprecedented and, as some US newspapers have described it, often “unpresidented”. You only have to read A Higher Loyalty, Truth, Lies and Leadership by former FBI director James Comey, who was fired by Trump in 2017, to understand the kind of absolute malevolence and fear that people felt being in Trump’s presence in the executive office.

In many ways, those meetings appear more like something out of The Godfather than the workings of the West Wing, the office of the ostensible leader of the free world. Contrast this with the viral clips of Biden appointing his staff shortly after his own inauguration with an unequivocal warning that they would be fired on the spot if they were ever found bullying or treating one another with disrespect.

Biden comes across as quintessentially ordinary. Trump, throughout his tenure and especially during his battle to contest the election results, always sought to portray himself as superb and exceptional. He wanted to Make America Great Again. Muhammad Ali might have been the greatest, but Donald Trump was always the genius, the smartest, the best with the biggest – as he eyed Mount Rushmore for uncarved space.

Trump’s strategy with Biden was to demonise him for his ordinariness. But it is precisely this trait that is so in need in the US – and across the world – right now. Somehow, we all tend, like Trump, to consider ordinariness as somehow unworthy and lesser than striving for exceptionalism. Being ordinary in today’s world has become a curse, but it shouldn’t be, for a number of reasons.

The first problem is that being exceptional is often achieved at someone else’s expense; you are better than someone, and therefore special. Ordinary people should have visions, should have dreams, yet somehow they have become diminished by this magical thinking that would rather place celebrities and stars on pedestals or have people strive to place themselves on pedestals. 

When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years of being abused and exploited, he didn’t lash out or seek revenge. He did the opposite – he actively sought to empower those around him, even the people who had been so cruel to him – his jailers. He was extraordinary by actively being ordinary; by not putting anyone else down in the process of achieving his dream, but rather empowering them to empower himself.

We learn from him and other great leaders, political and corporate, that if you go into an environment and make others feel that same way, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – everyone is enriched, especially the person leading the process. A great leader helps a group function as a group, not by dominating it by the force of their personality. That sense of ordinariness allows ordinary leaders to become extraordinary by being able to harness their vulnerability, to display it without thinking – or caring – that it might make them look weak.

Trump refused to wear a mask during the pandemic for precisely this reason. Biden cried on the day of his inauguration speaking about his late son. That night he was pictured dancing, holding his grandson as the entire family watched the virtual inauguration concert on television. In contrast, once again, Trump’s son filmed his girlfriend dancing as his father exhorted his supporters to storm the Capitol a fortnight before.

The Danes have a wonderful concept called the Law of Jante. In many ways, it’s like our concept of Ubuntu, where we proclaim to the world that we are – that we exist – because of others. The 10 rules of the Law of Jante focus on the value of the group over the individual. We may find it hard to accept that as we fight groupthink and talk of “sheeple”. But the connected insight and energy of a well-functioning group, a powerful team, is far more than any individual. We alone are but one insight, interpretation and worldview, whereas we together might have 10 rich views, openly and respectfully shared and synthesised, collectively more insightful, more knowledgeable, more potent than any one of us. 

The 10 injunctions include: you’re not to think you are anything special; you’re not to think you are as good as we are; you’re not to think you are smarter than we are; you’re not to imagine yourself better than we are; you’re not to think you know more than we do, and  you’re not to think you are more important than we are. 

At first, they appear harsh, especially to those who have bought into the mantra of exceptionalism, but they go a long way to explaining why Denmark is an extraordinary country; extraordinarily successful with extraordinarily happy and fulfilled citizens.

The US, on the other hand, is exceptional; exceptionally powerful, exceptionally rich – and exceptionally split into two distinct groups, one of which was exceptionally loyal, almost fanatically so, to Trump – the narcissistic antithesis of Jante.

Mandela created the story of the Rainbow Nation where everyone had a place in the sun, even those who had oppressed him and his kith and kin for generations because of the colour of their skin. Trump wanted to Make America Great Again. It took a generation for the public to begin to unpick Mandela’s legacy. The exercise on Trump began before he lost the election – but never among his most loyal followers.

In him, they saw the same exceptionalism that he wanted for himself because, as despots through time have done, he told them they were special. In their “greatness” others had to be lesser, to define and sustain their myth. Their common human condition of pain and dissonance could be discharged and blamed on others to purge themselves of it.  

The fundamental problem with Trump’s promise was that it was based on others not being special enough, so there had to be a wall with Mexico, whose citizens were – in the Trumpian narrative – threatening any attempt to make America great. Yet the biggest threat, “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born”, in the immortal words of WB Yeats, this time towards the Capitol, was the brutal mob; exposed by its naked sense of entitlement, ugly in its open violence and aggression and unashamed fascist pride of white supremacy. 

Where the Law of Jante is based on the higher ideal of collective humanity, the premise of Make America Great Again (MAGA)  was the destruction of the Deep State and the elitism that had alienated so many Americans, ignoring their difficulties and their pain as local economies collapsed. Just as Brexit gave story to the lived realities and hardship of marginal communities, especially in the formerly heavily industrialised north of England. MAGA and Brexit are almost tribal in their appeal. They are both premised on false narratives, but that does not make them any less attractive for followers fed a strict diet of conspiracy theories on bespoke media platforms that are nothing less than confirmation bias.

To heal, America needs an ordinary leader to be extraordinary. South Africa had Mandela who took office two months before he turned 76. Biden is 78. Mandela was a conciliator, but he also had a will of steel, as anyone who ever felt the rough edge of his tongue – like apartheid president FW de Klerk – will attest. That’s the true power of ordinariness – being the whole person, with integrity, integrated. Being strong in your own weakness, powerful in your vulnerability. Approachable, inspirational and, above all, relatable.

Biden will need all of this and more if he is to bring the two Americas together that were rent asunder during the four years of Trumpism. It will not be easy, but it can be done. Mandela showed the way.

The last thing the world needs is more supermen – especially self-proclaimed ones blind to their own kryptonite. What we do need is extraordinary leaders who know that they aren’t extra special – because it’s precisely that which created the explosive situation America finds itself in now that has to be defused. DM

 

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  • A fabulous testament to someone who seemed so flawed and brittle not so long ago. The transformation from stuttering and gaffe-prone (but sincere) individual, to the almost serenely competent one, has been remarkable! For one who had ‘retired’ … but chose to ‘come back’ at an unheard-of age, to the hurly-burly of public service is a revelation. The comparisons to aspects of Madiba are particularly apt. That the world is flooded with people (males particularly) with this misguided lust for ‘greatness’. Take the example of India, where after decades of the Gandhian (ordinary person) approach (lost on and over successive generations of Congress politicians), we now have the Modhian strong man and finger-wagging approach to greatness!

  • “… the kind of absolute malevolence and fear that people felt….” is an understatement. There are still some cowering now … and several paying homage to that style. Just look at the examples of ‘gym’ Jordan, Matt Gates, McCarthy, and now the real ‘joker’ in pack Marjorie Green ! And add in Hawley, Cruz, Graham, and the snake in the grass McConnell et al, and you will appreciate what I mean. The ‘virus’ is very much alive !