Self-help books crowd the shelves of America’s bookstores, beckoning consumers with all sorts of hopeful promises—from thinner thighs and bigger bank accounts to spiritual and sexual nirvanas. Though Richard Stengel’s publisher has placed his instructive book, Mandela’s Way, in the self-help genre, it stands head and shoulders above the rest of the assistive literary hoi polloi.
Stengel, the editor of Time magazine, collaborated with the liberator and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela on his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. He spent nearly three years with Mandela, conducting hours of extensive interviews, traveling with him, shadowing his every move. “I kept a diary of my time with him that eventually grew to 120,000 words,” writes Stengel in the book’s introduction. “Much of this book comes from those notes.”
Distilled from those jottings are 15 essential lessons modeled on Stengel’s observations and interpretations of Mandela’s courage and wisdom, exemplary leadership, compassion and love of humanity. From clear words on courage and self-control (“be measured”) to the benefits of presenting a good image, seeing the good in others, keeping your rivals and enemies close (this particular dictum is famously chronicled in the recent movie Invictus) and believing in the difference that love can make, the lessons are seamlessly intertwined with stories from Mandela’s life. This texture is one of the book’s key strengths, but a beautiful grace note is Stengel’s undiluted—yet clear-sighted—regard for the complex man who survived an unspeakably difficult 27-year incarceration and who said of his prison experience, “I came out mature.”
Ultimately, the true light of this inspirational book is the utter believability of these lessons. The hotheaded young Mandela, protégé of a tribal king who turned into a fierce freedom fighter, grew gradually into a man who, literally and figuratively, “found his own garden.” Though at age 91 Mandela is in the twilight of his life, he still personifies this grand lesson plan, these 15 deceptively simple steps to empowering self and others.
Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California.