Tampa’s former mayor, Pam Iorio, was the keynote speaker for the Florida League of Cities’ IEMO (Institute for Elected Municipal Officials) 3 program, The Leadership Challenge, this past November. Her talk to the gathering of thirty-some experienced elected municipal leaders moved and inspired them. Several times the next day, her words were remembered as guides to how best to think about this fascinating and frustrating thing called public service.
At one point, Mayor Iorio offered a public confession: she was (and still struggles not to be) a person who holds grudges. Personal or political slights she experienced led to lingering judgments and stony cold encounters. She acknowledged that she found it hard to let go.
But then she spoke with admiration and awe of a man whose ability to forgive had been so critical to the fate of a nation, whose example had humbled her and pushed her to forgive the truly petty matters that she had clung to so fiercely.
That man was Nelson Mandela.
Since Mr. Mandela died Thursday, everyone seems to have found a way to pay tribute. For a politician to receive praise from such diverse figures as U.S. President Barack Obama, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin is simply extraordinary. And when we find Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly agreeing that a political leader was “great”. . . well, then perhaps we finally have found the ground of objective truth.
There is very little I can add that makes any difference. Unbelievably, Mr. Mandela forgave the men who imprisoned him for decades in defense of their truly evil system of apartheid. In so forgiving, especially when he had the power to punish, Mr. Mandela’s wise, patient, decisive, yet gentle leadership prevented a bloodbath. He promoted and fought for a vision of a nation and a people whose relationships transcended color or caste and whose greatness would lie in their contemporary unity, not their historical divisions. That South Africa is not yet that nation is a testament, not to Mr. Mandela’s limitations, but to human weaknesses with which all of us are too familiar.
The tragedy, indeed, is that we are much less familiar with the kind of greatness Mr. Mandela exhibited.
The most moving thing I have seen, however, has not come from a world leader, nor from a media star.
It comes from one of Mr. Mandela’s grandchildren.
Mandla Mandela, oldest of Nelson Mandela’s many grandchildren, said this:
All that I can do is thank God that I had a grandfather who loved and guided all of us in the family. . . . The best lesson that he taught all of us was the need for us to be prepared to be of service to our people.”
May we all heed that best lesson.