I was still very young when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 after 27 years in prison. Even after all these years, I still remember that particular event among the most vivid memories from my childhood. This was because that singular event captured my parents’ lives and imagination in ways I’d never seen before; it almost scared me at the time. I had heard the name Mandela mentioned in dribs and droves, but at the time I had no idea who the man was or what he had done to achieve that level of recognition or greatness. As I look at the life of Nelson Mandela and other great men and women both present and past, I can’t help but wonder what it takes for a person to truly become great? With the recently concluded elections still fresh in our memories, and as South Africa desperately grapples to find its next “Mandela”, the questions is, where will the next generation of great men and women arise from?
Are some people born great? Can greatness be achieved by simply declaring you are going to be great? Can your circumstances mould you into greatness? Can greatness be taught or imparted? Before I even delve into these or any other thoughts, let us first define greatness. The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines greatness as “an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above average”. Similarly, Wikipedia defines great individuals as “individuals who possess a natural ability to be better than all others.”
What is it then that makes the Mandela’s of this world “considerably above average”, or “better than all others”? To help me answer this question, I decided to examine the lives of several great men and women from the past, the aim being to find any key personality traits that they all have in common. After a few days research, the first personality trait that I identified was the presence of a strong will or desire to never give up. This was summed up most beautifully by Thomas Edison after he managed to make the first electric light bulb following numerous failed attempts. When asked to comment on his many failed attempts, he said “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work!” If he had given up after only a few failures, he would never be remembered in history as a great inventor!
Another key trait of great individuals is their uncanny ability to innovate, or bring about positive change from the ordinary. One great innovator from the past that I personally admire was the great American businessman and philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller made his fortune in the oil industry through his company, Standard Oil. By the time he retired, Rockefeller’s net wealth was estimated at well over 300 billion US dollars. He was the world’s wealthiest man at the time and to date remains amongst the wealthiest men in history. How did he do it? Though some of his methods are contentious by today’s standards, Rockefeller brought important innovations to the sale and transportation of petroleum products such as kerosene. Without his key innovations at opportune times, he would never have built Standard Oil into the oil giant it became.
Courage is the other key personality trait I found. Having courage does not mean that we have no fears, but as Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”. Similarly, Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face”.
Having identified these and other amazing characteristics of great men and women from the past, I felt I was beginning to finally understand how true greatness can be achieved. Yet this view of greatness shifted somewhat when I came across an old sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. entitled the “Drum Major instinct”. According to King, the need to stand out and be significant is in fact inherent in all of us. He argues that this can be seen in a little child’s desire to be first or to have the best of everything. He called this instinctive desire to be first the “Drum Major instinct”, because the Drum Major is the individual at the front, leading the parade. Everyone else follows the Drum Majors cue, and most of us have an inner urge to lead or to stand out. We want to be first. King also argues that this “Drum Major instinct” is a kind of “Vitamin A” to our ego, because we all get goosebumps each time we are praised for doing something good. We want to be praised.
King goes further to point out that although there is nothing wrong with wanting to stand out, this “Drum Major instinct” can have poisonous consequences. For instance, a lot of people spend beyond their means to stand out or to keep up with “the John’s”. Other negative products of this “instinct” include exclusivism, racism, boasting and pushing others down to stay ahead. So this desire can become destructive. In spite of these negatives, King argues that its fine to want to be first, but in order to be truly great, one must seek to be great or first also in the “little” things, like love, kindness and humility. According to him, the greatest among us must be like a servant to all. To me, this was a new and peculiar form of greatness. The amazing thing about this definition of greatness is that everyone can be great. And by this definition, true greatness can never be associated with greed, malice, hatred, envy or dishonesty. According to King, you don’t need to be world famous to be great. You can be a housewife, a waiter, or an office clerk, and still achieve greatness in that role!
To conclude this article, let me finish by mentioning an unusual event that took place this morning. As I lay asleep, I thought I heard a strange voice calling me. When I opened my eyes, I tried to listen, to find out as to who might be calling me. All I could really hear were birds singing, and the distant humming of motor vehicle engines. I looked outside my window to see who it might be, but all I could see was the glistening morning dew on the lawn outside. That’s when I realized that the voice that had called me wasn't out there, it was calling me from everywhere. That voice was hardly audible, so I could only scarcely make it out. Yet I was sure it was there, and it was distinct, and it was unmistakable. Only when I stilled myself completely could I hear it.
That voice was the call of greatness. And it had been calling me all my life, I just couldn't hear it until now! At that moment, I also realized that greatness wasn't only just calling out my name, but the names of ALL OF US! I heard the names “Jane, Siya, Thuli, Julius, Michael, Samantha … “, it went on, and on, and on, never stopping. For you see, greatness is always calling out, and seeking any among us on whom to bestow the mantle of greatness! It seems there is a Mandela in all of us. We just have to work on our personality traits to bring that greatness out!Have a great day South Africa! Whatever it is you do in life, be it running a business, studying, teaching, police work, nursing and the like, do it with virtue, and BE GREAT at it! It’s you who makes this country great!