How world leaders learn

September 12, 2016 by Joshua
in Education, Leadership

I’m reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, which I find fascinating and highly recommend, even if you know a lot about him already.

Teaching and coaching at NYU and Columbia, speaking at Harvard, Princeton, MIT, INSEAD, and so on, I see a lot of what many would consider the pinnacle of our educational system. Teaching a non-lecture-based non-test-based style shows me the flaws in this system, how much of it is designed for administrators more than students, and why so many leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, and such exited it.

By contrast to what our society holds as elite, read how Mandela finished college after he ran away one year before finishing. He was living in a slum in Johannesburg, working at a law firm, finishing his degree by correspondence:

I never seemed to have money and I managed to survive on the meagerest of resources. The law firm paid me a salary of two pounds per week, having generously waived the premium the articled clerks normally paid the firm. Out of that two pounds, I paid thirteen shillings and fourpence a month for my room at the Xhomas’. The cheapest means of transport to and from Alexandra was the “Native” bus—for Africans only—which at one pound tenpence a month made a considerable dent in my income. I was also paying fees to the University of South Africa in order to complete my degree by correspondence. I spent another pound or so on food. Part of my salary was spent on an even more vital item—candles—for without them I could not study. I could not afford a kerosene lamp; candles allowed me to read late into the night.

I was inevitably short more than a few pence each month. many days I walked the six miles to town in the morning and the six back in the evening in order to save bus fare. I often went days without more than a mouthful of food, and without a change of clothing. [Law firm Partner] Mr. Sidelsky, who was my height, once gave me an old suit of his and, assisted by considerable stitching and patching, I wore that suit every day for almost five years. In the end, there were more patches than suit.

Do you get the idea that our focus on SAT scores misses something that he had?

What do you think we could learn from him about education? About drawing out passion from students?

Mandela’s story reminds me of this passage from my upcoming book:

Teaching in universities, I see the time and money schools devote to finding people willing to mentor students. After finding them, the school has to act like a matchmaker, hoping the potential mentor’s skills and experience overlap with some students’ interests. Students often take the connection for granted, like they were entitled for them for paying tuition.

Something is off for schools to work so hard to push something on students that they would value more if they worked for it. Mentor relationships give tremendous mutual benefit. If you want a mentor, you’ll appreciate the relationship more if you find and create it than if someone hands it to you. Schools see the problem as a lack of mentors or access to them. I see it as students’ lack of skill to create mentor relationships, which the schools’ coddling exacerbates.

Instead of handing students answers and material resources, I think we help them more by giving them challenges for them to find answers themselves and to develop resourcefulness. We can be resources for their learning.

Learn to make Meaningful Connections

with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.


  • Step by step instructions
  • Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
  • An excerpt from my book

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