Nelson Mandela: A Life and Legacy of Strengths


Nelson Mandela 1918-2013 December 5, 2013 will be remembered for at least two historic events: First, the worst storm surge in Northern Europe for more than half a century, with mile upon mile of town and countryside in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark inundated with sea water and many people losing their homes, their livelihoods, or even their lives.

Second, news of the death of the first black president of South Africa, anti-apartheid icon, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela. I’m not normally drawn to writing about political leaders (the current political scene leaves me cold), and it’s not something we tend to do on Positive Psychology News Daily anyway. But Mandela was different in every respect.

When I learned of his death at about 10pm, although it was no surprise as he’d been gravely ill for some time, it was still difficult to find the words to express the sorrow that I felt. “What can you say?” I responded to the person who’d broken the news to me by text. “A truly special life, I reckon,” came the reply.

As it happens, Mandela had already made an appearance in my positive psychology work. One of the activities I do when introducing people to the VIA character strengths is to give them photos of various celebrity figures, including Mandela’s, and have them agree on what top strengths that person has. This strengths-spotting game works particularly well with youngsters who are usually very keen to air differing opinions about the strengths they see (or not). You can have a lot of fun with fictional celebrities as well as real ones. Think of Steve Jobs, Angelina Jolie, James Bond, and so on, and regardless of your liking for that individual, you can – I hope! –  find some VIA strengths to talk about.

Nelson Mandela, though, was a man apart. He embodied such a range and quantity of character strengths, including Humility, Optimism, Perseverance, Leadership, Fairness, Citizenship, Self-Regulation, Love, Judgment, Perspective, Humor, Forgiveness, Bravery, that I wouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself ticking off pretty much the complete list of 24. This is often what happens in my workshops.

What about your own strengths? If I were to show your photo to family, friends, and colleagues, what would they say? Would they recognize your top VIA strengths and the values that you live by? Often the people I meet in my work are understandably a bit reticent to talk about their strengths. I dare say it wasn’t Mandela’s number 1 consideration either. Nobody really wants to listen to someone droning on about Their Top Strengths.

The point really is whether you live by them and whether you make them work for you and for those around you. As Chris Peterson once said, positive psychology is about what makes life most worth living. This is where Mandela was a master. He lived his strengths every day, and they will live on in his legacy. His life was a life well-lived. I think this is what my friend meant by “a truly special life.”

In 2009, the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring July 18th as International Nelson Mandela Day, to celebrate his life and achievements. People are encouraged to take part in voluntary, cultural, sports, or arts events which embrace the values Mandela shared.


Image courtesy of symphony of love

This article was originally published here on Positive Psychology News. com on 8th December 2013

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