On a day we honor Nelson Mandela, surely we are also pondering what makes leaders great. As in truly great—creating benefit, easing suffering, moving humanity forward on a large scale. We all have our own list of such leaders. Mine includes Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Gorbachev, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, Deitrich Bonhoffer, and of course Nelson Mandela. What unites them, with the exception of Gorbachev, is deep spiritual practice combined with great political skill. All are moral exemplars as well as effective leaders.
The best of our leaders are a kind of saint-statesperson, whose character is immediately apparent and transformative in its own right. When Abraham Lincoln gave his famous speech as Cooper Union in New York, one observer wrote afterward, “I have just seen the greatest man since St. Paul.” This is the ultimate power of decency, egolessness, and emotional intelligence. It is why Nelson Mandela’s light shone from a cell on Robben Island and changed his country and a continent and rid the world of a great shame.
Here are two Shambhala Sun stories about great leaders and the spiritual practice that informed their work. Here is Charles Johnson on Martin Luther King, Jr., and his biographer Roger Lipsey on UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.