Keep Your Enemies Closer

May 13, 2013 1 Comment by

South African FlagNineteen years ago this month, Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency of South Africa.

His inauguration in Pretoria culminated Mandela’s self-titled “long walk to freedom” that had wound an incredible path across his country and the tapestry of global history.

A Humble Hero: The nation’s first black President had left his childhood village of Mvezo in Umtatu to become the first member of his family to attend school. He worked his way through law school. He became a political activist during the most tumultuous, racially-divided time in any nation’s history.

His activism landed him in prison for decades. The tide of history eventually turned in favor of freedom through his struggle and the efforts of millions of like-minded blacks and whites within and beyond the borders of South Africa.

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Nelson Mandela wasn’t just an agent of change.

He fully embodied the purpose, the actions and the results of real and lasting change from within.

Respect or Revenge? One quote from Mandela’s many writings holds particular meaning for us as Change Agents. It’s about how he was to deal with those who had suppressed black South Africans prior to his rise to power. Mandela Robben Island

He was asked; now that he had the authority to rule the nation, would he take revenge?

Would he drive out the former white oppressors and risk a collapse of the South African economy as their wealth fled with them?

Or would he work directly with the whites as partners and risk appearing weak or capitulating to the millions of blacks who had placed so much faith in him?

His answer was clear, practical and loaded with political risk from every angle.

Not only would he tolerate his enemies, he would directly engage them.

He reasoned:

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Sun_TzuMandela’s quote may sound similar to these words attributed to Sun-Tzu, the dispenser of timeless advice regarding the craft of war, politics and power in “The Art of War”:

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

But Sun-Tzu’s admonishment should be considered within context.

He was advising warriors in the unforgiving art of battle. Some would argue that politics are unforgiving too – and they also involve life and death. But the biggest difference between the two fields is that, in most cases, political struggles allow more room for non-lethal engagement.

So do our change situations, unless something has gone terribly wrong of course…

Change Agent Take-Aways: I suggest Change Agents take Mandela’s approach when dealing with strong opposing forces of resistance to your change. Especially if those forces are gearing up for a fight.

Our goal as agents of change is not to defeat an enemy or overpower the weight of resistance. It’s to guide people through a transition and help along the process of change adoption. In that spirit, we should consider ways to partner with those who disagree with us.

Consider these five guidelines for this challenging task based on Mandela’s direct engagement approach:

handshake_mandela_deklerk1.  Commit to Progress Rather Than “Victory”: Remember that the chances of the adoption process moving forward improve if there’s give and take, so avoid entrenching your positions. Reach out to the other side and establish a forum for dialogue. Value the progress higher than “winning” on behalf of your position in the argument.

2. Be Principled: Successful change may at times involve compromise within the confines of a clear set of principles – so take the time to identify what those principles are for your team. For example, the new President was committed to a non-violent approach, so he tried to maintain a pace of change that would not set off unwarranted altercations.

Detractors screamed that he was rushing the social change process even as supporters argued that he was dragging his feet. Both groups felt they were right from their frame of reference. Mandela’s perspective needed to encompass all positions, so he adopted a guiding principle of engagement and consideration over bending to the critics on either side.

3. Define Expectations: Decide in advance if there are non-negotiable expectations you’ll need stakeholders to meet. In Mandela’s case, he insisted that ALL South Africans deserved economic and political opportunities, so any proposed issue resolution that restricted this freedom was a non-starter.

nelson mandela freed from prison4.  Avoid Fruitless Confrontation: Direct engagement is meant to head off direct conflict and avoid some of its negative consequences. Direct conflict will often lead to unnecessary collateral damage. Especially if we over-react and use a much stronger force than the situation calls for.

Do your homework before you confront people. Only use the strongest language to address resistance after more considerate overtures have failed to achieve results. This is not to say that you won’t sometimes need to confront stakeholders who are stalling. It’s just to say that you shouldn’t call for tanks in the street at the first sight of slow change adoption.

5.  Your Friends are Still Your Friends – Even if They Occasionally Question You: Be prepared to answer accusations of weakness from your strongest supporters. This doesn’t mean they’re getting ready to flee or they don’t share your goals. They may just question your motives, pace or approach.

Keep the lines of communication open within your team. Listen to their concerns and adapt where you feel it’s appropriate, but avoid the urge to promise confrontation with “the enemy”. You don’t need to convince every single team member to fall in love with the engagement approach, you just need to keep them working together and moving in the same direction.

Conclusion: As Nelson Mandela frittered away endless years in captivity, he could have developed a bitter, revengeful sentiment for those who eventually became his political opponents. He could have taken out that revenge when he became President of all South Africans.

Instead, he chose to represent the broadest definition of his stakeholders – all South Africans, black and white – and he guided them through one of history’s most unlikely transitions. 

The next time you find yourself in a potentially bitter battle over a change, open your mind to the idea of direct engagement.

You may be surprised to learn that your “opponents” are open to dialogue as well.

They were just waiting for you to go first…


Questions for Chatter:

  1. In what way do we introduce unnecessary risk when we refuse to engage those who disagree with our positions?
  2. How can we deal with the perception of weakness that may arise when we chose to engage “the other side”?


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Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

One Response to “Keep Your Enemies Closer”

  1. Michael Shelton says:

    Very interesting post Steve. Lots o’ food for thought.

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