“Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed.” ~Desmond Tutu
Earlier this week, I heard the news that retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu had been admitted to a South African hospital for the third time in recent months. He was hospitalized on Monday for inflammation, a separate condition from the one for which he was previously treated.
I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on his remarkable achievements, as well as some of the lessons we can learn from him in terms of PRESENCE and LEADERSHIP.
As a journalist in South Africa, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet the man, who is fondly referred to as “The Bish,” at a birthday celebration for Nelson Mandela, at which president Bill Clinton spoke. The Archbishop asked if he could sit next to me, and I was floored. It was a very pleasant surprise to have the chance to personally meet a man I held in such high regard, and I was struck by his warmth and humility.
Desmond Tutu, 83, was the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, and bishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to help end South African apartheid. He has campaigned to fight racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, HIV/AIDS, and more.
Beginning in the 1970’s, Tutu supported movements working to oppose apartheid. In 1976, he was appointed Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches, which allowed him to continue his work with agreement from nearly all churches. He promoted a non-violent approach to ending apartheid.
In 1995, Nelson Mandela’s Government of National Unity created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, of which Tutu was chairman. The commission was established to help South Africans move forward from their country’s troubled past, to investigate violations that had taken place between 1960 and 1994, and to provide support and reparation to apartheid victims and their families. However, while Tutu historically supported Mandela, last year he said that he did not support Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, as it has failed to live up to the moral example set by Mandela himself.
To accomplish all that Archbishop Tutu has achieved, one must be a skilled leader who knows how to connect with others. So what can we learn from Tutu when it comes to cultivating a strong presence?
When I met Archbishop Tutu, I noticed that he was not a large man. This surprised me, because his presence often seems larger than life. However, while he may not be the most physically imposing person in the room, he is able to connect with and inspire others because he is remarkably genuine. When you hear him speak, you know that he deeply believes and cares about the topics he is discussing. Authenticity is one of the most important aspects of a powerful presence.
Have a strong argument
One of Desmond Tutu’s famous quotes is, “Don’t raise your voice; improve your argument.” If you want others to follow your lead, bullying them into a course of action is not the way to go. Rather, successful leaders are able to intelligently and powerfully articulate their points of view, and are therefore more likely to gain the trust and loyalty of their teams.
Tutu has spoken about the importance of forgiveness, and has worked tirelessly to oppose discrimination in all forms, saying, for example, that he “would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven,” and noting that, “When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves.” Holding on to anger or negative feelings about others will do you no good. Rather, it is likely to make you come across as petty and insensitive, and this will certainly work against you when you’re trying to cultivate presence. On the other hand, being compassionate and open-minded toward others will give you access to new ideas and ways of thinking, and will demonstrate to others that you are approachable and eager to build positive relationships.
Choose your words carefully
Archbishop Tutu once said, “Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” Whether you’re giving a presentation, writing a report, or engaged in a debate, speaking out of anger, or choosing your words without care, will likely create unwanted setbacks and conflicts. Being mindful of the words you use will significantly shape the way that others view you.
In many ways, it can be said that Archbishop Desmond Tutu exemplifies the best of the human condition. He believes in and fights for justice and equality, and he does so from a place of humility and compassion. We would likely all do well to learn from his example.